The city of San Jose has sued Monsanto Company and two related corporations over chemical pollution in the San Francisco Bay.
Filed a month ago in the U.S. District Court in California’s Northern District, the suit lists defendants as Monsanto, its chemical manufacturing offshoot Solutia Inc. and Pharmacia Corporation, another Monsanto spinoff now owned by Pfizer.
San Jose claims these companies are liable for fouling the bay with polychlorinated biphenyls—commonly called PCBs. Monsanto manufactured and sold the toxic chemicals under the name Aroclor from the 1930s to 1970s, despite knowing the harm it could have on the environment and people, according to the lawsuit.
Despite this knowledge, the agriculture giant kept producing Aroclor until Congress enacted a law banning its use in 1979. For decades, it was the only manufacturer of the chemical. The city has called for a jury trial and seeks punitive damages to clean waterways.
Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said the company is reviewing the lawsuit and the allegations.
“Monsanto is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter,” she told San Jose Inside. “PCBs sold at the time were a lawful and useful product that were then incorporated by third parties into other useful products. If improper disposal or other improper uses allowed for necessary clean up costs, then these other third parties would bear responsibility for these costs.”
PCBs have been linked to cancer and reproductive and developmental problems. For decades, it was used in paint, caulk, coolants, sealants, inks, lubricants and other widespread applications. Industrial and commercial runoff ferries the chemical through storm drains and into the bay, where it contaminates fish and other marine life.
Because of federal limits on the concentration of PCB in the bay, San Jose has to obtain permits from local water authorities to discharge storm water. Recently, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board upped the standards, which will cost even more and force the city to improve its methods and facilities, according to the suit.
Monsanto has distanced itself from its PCB producing days—the old company no longer exists.
“Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture, but we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901,” Lord explained. “The former Monsanto was involved in a wide variety of businesses, including the manufacturing of PCBs.”
Old Monsanto had its hand it agriculture, chemical products and nutrition. Around 1997, the company split into three distinct corporations. The company now known as Monsanto assumed the agricultural products business. Solutia took over chemical manufacturing and Pharmacia focused on prescription drugs. The lawsuit says the three companies share liability for claims arising from the Old Monsanto’s chemical business.
The lawsuit quotes internal company documents that indicate Monsanto knew full well the environmental havoc it caused with Aroclor. The complaint also alleges that the company lied to government regulators, saying the product was non-toxic and wouldn’t affect the environment.
Here’s a copy of the entire complaint. The suit is being carried by Gomez Trial Attorneys and Baron & Budd, P.C. on contingency.
“No company should be allowed to contaminate the environment and rely upon taxpayers to clean up the mess," attorney Scott Summy, a shareholder at Baron & Budd, P.C., said in a statement. "Monsanto, one of the most sophisticated chemical companies in the world, knew decades ago that PCBs were a significant contamination threat. And yet the company was concerned more with continuing profits than with protecting the public.”
Several cities have filed similar lawsuits, including recent complaints brought by San Diego and Spokane, Washington.
Public nuisance claims almost always fail, but California has had some success. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, compared the PCB claim to a lawsuit Santa Clara County filed against paint manufacturers for lead poisoning. After 14 years of legal wrangling, the court ordered companies to pay $1.15 billion to remove toxic paint.