“Monsanto helped to create the problem and should be a part of the solution,” said Marlene Feist, utilities director of strategic development in Spokane, WA.
The problem is contamination from Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were used to insulate electric equipment and in numerous products, including paint, for much of the 20th century. The chemicals were manufactured by Monsanto for decades until production was banned in the United States in 1979.
Spokane, Washington state, the Port of Portland, and other west coast cities have recently filed lawsuits against Monsanto over PCB pollution—and more states could be poised to file their own legal actions.
PCBs have been linked to cancer, immune system problems, and other health issues. And the chemical has been found in waterways all over Washington—one of the worst affected is the Spokane River, the state said.
“For us, it’s really about how do we get the cleanest river for future generations,” Feist said. “This river is our greatest asset—it runs through the heart of the city, it’s an economic driver, and a driver of outdoor recreation.”
The cost of the cleanup as well as the environmental and health impacts are what have prompted at least nine West Coast cities to sue Monsanto for damages associated with PCBs.
In December, Washington became the first state to sue Monsanto over PCB pollution.
“PCBs have been found in bays, rivers, streams, sediment, soil and air throughout Washington state, with more than 600 suspected or confirmed contamination sites from Puget Sound to the Wenatchee River, Lake Spokane to Commencement Bay,” a press release from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
Fish in the Spokane River have some of the highest levels of PCBs in the state, said Spokane Tribe Water and Fish Program Manager Brian Crossley. The tribe’s reservation is downstream from the city of Spokane.
Despite spending hundreds of millions on cleanup efforts and lowering the contamination significantly in recent decades, Spokane still struggles with PCB contamination above state and tribal standards. Locals see the river as almost taboo and off-limits.
“We still have fishermen, and we still catch lots of fish and eat it, but there would probably be more if they didn’t have that stigma of ‘Spokane River, I’d never eat that fish,’” Crossley said.
PCBs accumulate in fish and get stronger as they move up the food chain.
For the Spokane Tribe, that represents a threat to their way of life as a people who once depended on eating fish regularly. Now, it’s almost taking a risk to eat the local fish, Crossley said.
“If a tribal member chooses to eat the fish it could be at a health detriment—it’s all based on a calculation of risk,” he said.
There are currently 13 active fish consumption advisories related to PCBs across Washington, and more than 600 suspected or confirmed contamination sites from Seattle’s Puget Sound to the Wenatchee River, Ferguson said in the release.
Ferguson and Washington Governor Jay Inslee say Monsanto is responsible for the pollution.
“Monsanto is responsible for producing a chemical that is so widespread in our environment that it appears virtually everywhere we look—in our waterways, in people, and in fish—at levels that can impact our health,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “It’s time to hold them accountable for doing their fair share as we clean up hundreds of contaminated sites and waterways around the state.”
St. Louis-based Monsanto, whose genetically modified seed and pesticides have stirred up controversy, seemed to downplay the lawsuit in a statement.
"This case is highly 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," Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge said in a statement.
At the same time, Monsanto admitted last year that it had set aside $280 million for personal injury claims from PCBs.
But Ferguson does not just allege that Monsanto manufactured a harmful chemical that contaminated the entire state. Ferguson alleges in the lawsuit that Monsanto knew—and concealed—the fact that PCBs were toxic and would lead to pervasive contamination.
The company chose to hide the toxicity of the chemicals in order to profit off of them, Ferguson’s complaint alleges.
Monsanto internal documents from as far back as 1937 talked about “systemic toxic effects” from prolonged exposure to PCB vapors, Ferguson said in the release. In the 1960s, the company talked about evidence of global PCB contamination but kept that information hidden from the public, the lawsuit alleges.
PCBs are found all over the world now because they do not break down quickly, and as airborne particles they can travel far from where they were first released into the environment. PCB pollution has even been found in the Arctic, the CDC has said.
A Harvard study from 2016 found that 14 million students in 26,000 schools could be exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs, found in things like caulk and floor finish.
Ferguson quoted a 1969 internal report by an ad hoc Monsanto committee on PCBs in his release:
There is no practical course of action that can so effectively police the uses of these products as to prevent environmental contamination. There are, however a number of actions which must be undertaken to prolong the manufacture, sale and use of these particular Aroclors.
Aroclor was the name of a commercial product containing PCBs widely sold by Monsanto before they were banned.
“Monsanto knew the dangers of PCBs yet hid them from the public to generate profits,” Ferguson said in the release. “I will hold Monsanto accountable for its actions.”
The state’s lawsuit is separate from lawsuits filed by Spokane and other Washington cities including Seattle—and covers much broader ground.
Spokane’s lawsuit is the furthest along of the actions against Monsanto over PCB pollution, according to Feist. The city sued Monsanto a year and a half ago and although the company filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Spokane’s case was upheld by a judge and is slated to proceed sometime in January 2018, Feist said.
She said the success of Spokane’s case and the state’s lawsuit against Monsanto could embolden others to file their own lawsuits.
“I know that others are interested and we could potentially see more along the same vein,” Feist said.
The city of Spokane has spent around $300 million on cleanup efforts, including upgrading treatment at the wastewater treatment plant and installing large tanks to capture stormwater during major storms to prevent it from going untreated into the river.
Crossley said the contamination in the river has caused a generational avoidance of the waterway.
“If grandma told you don’t eat a certain brand of food, it’s bad ….you’ll tend to go along with that—it’ll be in the back of your mind and you’ll avoid it,” Crossley said. “It’s affected generations in how they perceive the river to be clean or the fish safe to eat.”
Crossley talked about how PCBs accumulate differently in different kinds of fish. He said rainbow trout were generally safe to eat but not northern pikeminnow, a native fish, or sucker fish.
The Spokane Tribe wants to consume fish at historic levels—but in order for that to happen safely, the PCB levels in the river need to be further reduced. For the tribe, the goal to get PCB pollution down to zero in the environment.
“If we consumed fish at those historic levels then they would need to be clean,” Crossley said.