West Coast Cities Want to Hold Monsanto Responsible for Poisonous PCBs

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Portland, Seattle and Spokane, Washington, and Berkeley, Oakland, San Diego and San Jose, California, are aiming to hold Monsanto liable for several billion dollars in cleanup costs related to the harmful chemical PCBs the company produced for years, which are still impacting the environment today.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs, were produced for decades, mainly for use in electrical equipment, surface coatings and paints. They don’t exist naturally, so all PCBs anywhere in the world are man-made. They are very stable and persist in the environment indefinitely, unless removed and intentionally destroyed.

During the years PCBs were in wide use, the chemical was found in breast milk and was linked to birth defects, immune disorders and more, in both animals and humans. This led to their widespread banning in the 1970s, though evidence suggests Monsanto may have known about these harmful effects long before then.

Monsanto claims it is not the same Monsanto that operated back in the ’60s and ’70s and produced 99 percent of America’s PCBs. Sadly, this is a common form of corporate duplicity: Use mergers, name changes and “strategic bankruptcies” to avoid liability for your past actions. In the end, it is taxpayers, or low-income residents, who are left with the impacts of corporate negligence.

If successful, this case could have major repercussions. Corporations have rarely been held responsible for their negligence, especially when concerning the environment. If Monsanto is held responsible for its actions 40 years ago, the company — along with others — would be more careful about what it releases into the environment.

The Monsanto case also shows that, when we’re talking complex chemicals, the impacts can last for decades, if not centuries, after they are no longer used. PCB hasn’t been manufactured since the ’70s, yet it’s still found in rivers and waterways across the country. Monsanto, of course, now manufactures pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds, the impacts of which we’re still not entirely sure. Who would be surprised if in 30 years we’re trying to get the negative impacts of RoundUp out of the environment?

Here’s the worst part: Monsanto is using its political clout in an attempt to build immunity into a house bill entitled, without irony, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which would explicitly exempt the company from liability for injuries caused by PCBs.

“The TSCA’s shield provision would dismiss all those lawsuits. Congress would have the public, not the polluters, pay to clean up Monsanto’s monumental mess,” Robert Kennedy Jr, wrote in a blog post. “If Monsanto gets its way, the American people will pay a high price for corporate greed and political corruption.”

To many, this is just another page in Monsanto’s playbook – avoid responsibility, and then use back-doors to get your way. If there’s one thing you can be sure of it’s that Monsanto will use every trick in the book to get out of paying for its present, and future, adverse environmental impacts, just as it is trying to skirt responsibility for PCBs today. For the sake of our health, let’s hope the cities’ lawsuit succeeds.

Image credit: Andrew Pirodi via Wikimedia

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.