Contra Costa County and 17 of its cities in California are suing Monsanto Co. to compel it to clean up pollution caused by a chemical coolant produced by the former agricultural giant for decades that leaked into bay waters and prompted state officials to warn residents not to eat striped bass and other types of fish.
The lawsuit accuses Monsanto, which has become synonymous with environmental hazards as a result of litigation dating back to the 1980s, of manufacturing toxic chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the environment.
The polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at issue have been used by Monsanto for more than 50 years in a “breathtakingly wide range of commercial, household, and industrial products,” according to the lawsuit. Until the chemicals were banned in 1976, the company produced 99% of all PCBs used in the United States.
Many Monsanto employees were aware of the risks associated with PCBs, but did not reduce production, warn the public, or protect industrial workers who handled coolants used to treat electrical transformers, according to a long line of court cases.
The lawsuit was filed by San Francisco law firm Sher Edling LLP, and nearly all of Contra Costa’s prominent central and west county cities, including Richmond, Martinez, Walnut Creek, Concord, Danville, Lafayette, and Pittsburg, joined. Monsanto has not responded to the lawsuit, but it has settled several similar ones.
“Monsanto and the other defendants were aware that their products were harmful to human health and the environment, but chose to mislead the public in order to maximize their profits,” former county Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said in a statement included in the firm’s press release announcing the lawsuit. “Our lawsuit will hold them accountable for their actions as well as the enormous costs of cleaning up the contamination. Not our taxpayers, but they should pay to clean up their mess.”
They claim that Monsanto’s PCBs leached into the ground, eventually making their way into the San Francisco Bay and the western Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where they popped up at various “hotspots” in estuaries that support a diverse range of marine life.
“Because buildings, roadways, infrastructure, inland waters, flora, and fauna” in Contra Costa County’s cities are contaminated with PCBs, “inflows of water and sediment to the Bay and the Delta Waterways frequently contain (the chemicals),” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in late December but only made public this week.
Consuming the chemicals can cause health problems in people of all ages and harm pregnancies, according to health officials, prompting them to advise against eating local fish such as striped bass and white sturgeon. In addition to PCB concentrations in fish skin and fatty tissue, the chemicals have been found in herons and terns, which prey on the fish during their annual migrations across the Pacific Ocean.
The plaintiff jurisdictions want Monsanto to pay for the cleanup of contaminated areas as well as the prevention of further PCB seepage.
“Monsanto foresaw, or should have foreseen, that regulations limiting such discharges would require local governments… to take a variety of actions and bear associated costs,” according to the lawsuit.
The filing follows a settlement agreement reached last month in which San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Alameda County, and other jurisdictions – including Antioch, another Contra Costa city – were awarded $36.5 million in a separate lawsuit against Monsanto, which German pharmaceutical company Bayer acquired in 2018.
The settlement for that lawsuit, which was filed as a class action by over 2,500 cities and counties, totaled $648 million in payouts.
Last fall, Marin County and its cities filed a lawsuit against Monsanto over PCBs. This latest filing asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages. Last year, a Washington state jury awarded $185 million to three teachers who claimed PCBs at their school caused brain injuries.
Bayer representatives stated that they were “pleased” with the $35 million Bay Area settlement reached last month. The company has downplayed public outrage over “legacy” Monsanto products that contained PCBs.
“Bayer does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing under the proposed agreement, and the court’s final approval fully resolves the claims of class members,” the company said at the time.