West Coast Cities Sue Monsanto To Pay For Chemical Cleanup

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Above Photo: A canoe casts off from Cathedral Park under the St. Johns Bridge, part of a stretch of the Willamette River laced with PCBs and other pollutants. Cathy Cheney/Portland Business Journal

Cities take a new tack to fight pollutants: targeting companies who make them.

Portland, Oregon’s Willamette is no wilderness river. But on a spring day, downstream of downtown, wildness peeks through. Thick forest rises beyond a tank farm on the west bank. A sea lion thrashes to the surface, wrestling a salmon. And as Travis Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, steers our canoe under a train bridge — dodging debris tossed by jackhammering workers — ospreys wing into view.

The 10-mile reach, known as Portland Harbor, became a Superfund Site in 2000. Over the last century, ships were built and decommissioned here, chemicals and pesticides manufactured, petroleum spilled, and sewage and slaughterhouse waste allowed to flow. Pollution has decreased, but toxic chemicals linger in sediments. Resident fish like bass and carp are so contaminated that riverside signs warn people against eating them, though some do. And osprey can’t read warnings, so they accumulate chemicals, which can thin eggshells and harm chicks.

Among the worst are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Used in electrical transformers, coolants, caulk, paints and other products, these probable carcinogens were banned in 1979 for their toxicity, persistence and the ease with which they escaped into the environment. Even so, they continued entering waterways through storm drains here and elsewhere.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s remediation plan for Portland Harbor’s PCBs and other pollutants, expected in May, will cost between $790 million and $2.5 billion. The city of Portland, one of 150 “potentially responsible parties” on the hook for a percentage, has already spent $62 million on studies and reports. So on March 16, the city council decided to join six other West Coast cities in suing agribusiness giant Monsanto to recoup some past and future cleanup costs. San Diego filed in 2015, and San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Spokane and Seattle followed.

Monsanto is best known for GMO crops and Roundup, but before it split from its chemical and pharmaceutical branches (also named in the suits), it was the sole U.S. PCB manufacturer from the 1930s to the late 1970s. “Monsanto knew that if you used (these products) for their intended purpose, PCBs would leach into the environment,” says Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve, but it sold the chemicals anyway. “We believe that polluters, not the public, should pay.”

A victory would not only inspire more PCB lawsuits, it could suggest a pathway to help fill gaps in U.S. chemical regulation, says University of Richmond School of Law professor Noah Sachs, who specializes in toxics and hazardous waste. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, inspired in part by PCBs, has a weak review process and generally doesn’t require health and safety testing of chemicals before manufacturers can sell them. And the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — CERCLA, the Superfund law — is concerned with who spilled or arranged to dispose of chemicals at a site, not who made them. “What we see here is testing a new legal theory,” Sachs says. “I hope companies that know their hazardous products are escaping into the environment are held accountable for the damage they’re doing.”