Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, left, and Gov. Jay Inslee head into a news conference where Ferguson announced a lawsuit against agrochemical giant Monsanto over pollution from PCBs, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
SEATTLE — For the first time ever, a U.S. state is suing the agribusiness giant Monsanto over the toxic after-effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a dangerous chemical once commonly found in building supplies and industrial equipment.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, announced the lawsuit last week. The Associated Press reported on Dec. 9 that they hope to win “hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars” from Monsanto.
“It is time to hold the sole U.S. manufacturer of PCBs accountable for the significant harm they have caused to our state,” Ferguson said during a Dec. 8 press conference in Seattle.
Although PCBs were banned in the late 1970s, the chemicals are still present in many homes and public buildings, including schools, and have polluted water throughout the country. PCBs are considered a probable carcinogen and have been linked to developmental difficulties in children and animals, among other serious adverse health effects.
In 1935, Monsanto bought Swann Chemical Company, one of the primary original manufacturers of PCBs, and in the decades until the chemicals were banned, Monsanto was responsible for the creation of most of the PCBs in the country.
“Monsanto produced PCBs for decades while hiding what they knew about the toxic chemicals’ harm to human health and the environment,” Ferguson noted during the press conference.
There is proof that Monsanto knew about and deliberately covered up the dangers posed by PCBs. The AP reported:
“In 1937, an internal memo said testing on animals showed ‘systemic toxic effects’ from prolonged exposure by inhaling PCB fumes or ingestion. In 1969, a company committee on PCBs noted, ‘There is too much customer/market need and selfishly too much Monsanto profit to go out.’”
In a statement provided to the wire service, a Monsanto spokesperson called the state’s lawsuit “experimental because it seeks to target a product manufacturer for selling a lawful and useful chemical four to eight decades ago that was applied by the U.S. government, Washington State, local cities, and industries into many products to make them safer.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies have been hesitant to crack down on Monsanto’s role in the manufacture of PCBs. However, the EPA and Monsanto have also maintained a close relationship, leading to accusations of institutional bias. David DesRoches, explained the close ties in the June 11 episode of Reveal, a podcast produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting:
“There’s a history of people moving back and forth between the EPA and various industries, and when the PCB problem first surfaced, the person who managed the whole school PCB problem for the EPA was a former consultant for a major chemical lobbying group, and the number 2 person at the EPA at the time was a former executive with Monsanto, who later went on to DuPont.”
In recent years, activists and local governments have attempted to force courts to step in where the federal government has been unwilling or unable to hold Monsanto accountable for its environmental crimes. Judges have sided with Monsanto in multiple lawsuits brought by individuals and city governments, and on Tuesday, Monsanto shareholders agreed to a $57 billion buyout offer by Germany’s Bayer. If approved, the pair would merge into a multinational chemical and agricultural corporation of unprecedented size and influence.
Still, it’s possible the combined legal might of an entire state may be able to bring the company to justice for the decades in which its toxic chemicals have built up in the systems of plants, people, and water systems.