Happy Tuesday, ecoSPEARS blog readers!
Usually we take Tuesday to post our weekly blog blurbs where we summarize a handful of key articles about environmental news from the previous week. Today we’re going to do something a bit different.
Last week, one of the articles we touched on was how Ohio’s Attorney General, Mike DeWine, recently issued a lawsuit against agricultural giant Monsanto. The lawsuit claims that Monsanto, which produced PCBs between the late 1920s and 1977, knew of the health defects PCBs posed to human health as early as the 1930s and yet continued with their production for another 40 years. Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s Vice President of Global Strategy, has said Monsanto “voluntarily ceased production of PCBs” in 1977, two years before they were banned from manufacturing in the United States. PCBs would later see a global ban on production in 2004 by the Stockholm Convention.
Since being filed last Monday, DeWine’s lawsuit has been blasted over news sources and websites online sparking a revised discussion on the issues PCBs cause to human health and wildlife when they are allowed to persist in our ecosystems for years, if not decades. After all, PCBs are indissoluble in water and build up in the environment, finding their way into living organisms and bioaccumulate up the natural food chain. Humans are exposed to PCBs through eating contaminated fish, swimming in contaminated water, or even breathing in PCBs that have managed to go airborne in some areas such as the New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts.
Environmental dredging of New Bedford Harbor, MA where PCBs have gone airborne. (source: burnhammarine.com)
While our coverage of PCB and contamination by other toxins in Ohio hasn’t been as deep as other areas in the US – such as the Houston, Housatonic, or Spokane rivers – the Ohio River has been consistently rated one of the country’s most polluted waterways every year since 2001. Over twice the length of New York’s Hudson River, the Ohio River spans 981 miles in length and runs along the borders of six states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Heavy industry booms and manufacturing in the regions along the river during the 20th century polluted the river not only with PCBs, but mercury, lead, heavy metals, nitrates, pathogens, as well as water runoff from mines and sewage which have created a lethal cocktail of contamination within the river.
DeWine’s lawsuit filed last Monday targets Monsanto as well as Solutia, Inc. and Pharmacia LLC as defendants, citing the three PRPs “were responsible for 99% or more of all PCBs used within the United States from 1929-1977. Page two of the lawsuit also claims that, “high PCB concentrations are the cause of impairment of over 100 significant Ohio waterbodies. In addition, hundreds of other Ohio waterbodies and waterways suffer PCB contamination at detectable levels below the threshold for impairment.”
Some key points DeWine makes in the lawsuit are that an internal Monsanto memo from 1937, referring to PCBs by their common trade-name “Aroclors” produced “systematic toxic effects” from prolonged exposure, and that Monsanto’s then medical director said in the memo at the time, “[w]e know Aroclors are toxic…about the same as DDT in mammals.”
DDT pesticide thinned the shell walls of eggs in many different bird species, causing embryo damage which nearly brought some to extinction in the 20th-century.
Our blog blurb last week touched on DDT, a pesticide manufactured and used in the mid-20th-century with known adverse effects on human health and the environment. DDT’s toxicity was so rampant that many species of animals – including Peregrine Falcons and the American Bald Eagle – nearly faced extinction from its use. DDT’s chemical structure is similar to that of dioxins which also made it a popular defoliant in the 1960s and 1970s, more commonly known as “Agent Orange.”
The full 62-page lawsuit document can be found here on the Ohio Attorney General’s website.
If DeWine’s claims are true, insofar as Monsanto and the other defendants named in the lawsuit were responsible for manufacturing such a high percentage of PCBs during the 20th-century, AND were aware of the health risks they posed forty years before ceasing production of the cancer-causing carcinogen, Monsanto could have a legal fire lit underneath them if decisions made on record by the Ohio and federal branches of EPA require Monsanto to clean portions of the Ohio River still contaminated with PCBs.
Remember that GE was found liable for PCB discharge in the Hudson River from their operations in the 20th-century in upstate New York. The corporation spent six years and $1.6 billion USD dredging and remediating a 40-mile stretch of the Upper Hudson River, 200 miles of which has become the US’s largest Superfund site. While environmental consultants say the project is a far outlier in terms of size, scale, and cost in remediation, it sparks questions regarding Monsanto’s potential as a defendant responsible for cleaning PCBs from Ohio’s waterways.
Will Monsanto be held liable in court? If the decision is appealed by Monsanto (which would be likely), how many cubic yards will be remediated in total? What will the cost be to Monsanto, the state of Ohio, and the citizens affected by PCB contamination in Ohio’s waterways?
Monsanto has said it will “aggressively defend” itself in the new lawsuit and some fear that Monsanto’s seemingly endless pockets will ultimately triumph over DeWine’s “good guy” narrative. It’s safe to say that, in the face of a conglomerate as sizable as Monsanto, the lawsuit could pose to be a contemporary “David and Goliath” showdown in the US’s environmental rhetoric.
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