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Los Angeles sues Monsanto over PCB water pollution

The EPA classifies PCBs as a "probable" human carcinogen, and fetal exposure can cause birth defects.

LOS ANGELES (CN) —  The city of Los Angeles has entered the legal fray over banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, joining other California cities in suing Monsanto on claims the chemicals have tainted city water sources.

Although the toxic substance was banned in the U.S. 1979, the presence of PCBs has lingered in a variety of older products including electrical equipment, caulks, paints and sealants and — according to the city — continues making its way into rivers, lakes and streams.

"The health and safety and environmental ramifications of PCBs, those are just jaw dropping," said LA City Attorney Mike Feuer at a press conference Monday. "It is time for Monsanto to clean up and pay up."

A spokesman for Monsanto said in a written statement that the company believes the suit is "without merit."

"Monsanto voluntarily ceased its lawful manufacturing of PCBs more than 40 years ago, and never manufactured, used, or disposed of PCBs into Los Angeles' waters, and therefore should not be held liable for the contamination alleged by the city," the statement added.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies PCBs as a "probable" human carcinogen, meaning that evidence points to it causing certain kinds of cancer. Fetal exposure to PCBs may result in birth defects. Humans exposed to PCBs — typically through ingesting it, by either eating fish or drinking contaminated water — can experience a variety of short-term adverse health effects including headaches, nausea and rashes.

Monsanto produced, marketed and sold PCBs in the United States for nearly 50 years until 1977, under the trademark of "Aroclor." According to city's suit, "Monsanto was responsible for the manufacture of 99% or more of all PCBs used or sold within the United States."

"For decades, Monsanto knew that its commercial PCB formulations were highly toxic and would inevitably produce precisely the contamination and human health risks that have occurred," the city says in its complaint, filed in LA County Superior Court. "Yet Monsanto misled the public, regulators, and its own customers about these key facts, maintaining that its PCB formulations were safe, were not environmentally hazardous, and did not require any special precautions in use or disposal."

The city's lawsuit comes nearly three years after LA County sued Monsanto and nearly six years after Long Beach did so on roughly the same claims. When asked why the city was so late in filing its own version, Feuer said, "We've been focused on trying to get this lawsuit just right. I'm not going to discuss our litigation strategy in any detail, but this is an important time to bring this litigation and we're bringing it now."

A number of West Coast cities — including San Diego, Long Beach, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, and Spokane, Washington — announced they'd reached a reported $650 million settlement with Monsanto over the PCB water contamination issue in June 2020. But U.S. District Judge Fernando Olguin rejected the deal, finding the protections it gave Bayer, the German conglomerate that now owns Monsanto, were “overly broad.” He also called the payments certain individuals stood to receive from the deal, as little as $15,000 in some cases, "very modest." The parties remain in negotiations over a new settlement.

Feuer said the city's suit would be a separate action.

"We are not going to participate if there is a settlement," Feuer said. "The amounts of money on the table would be a gift to Monsanto."

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