MILWAUKEE (CN) — The city of Milwaukee’s government sued Monsanto on Thursday over ongoing contamination of its water systems by PCBs, a family of human-made toxic chemicals the agrochemical giant used in its products for decades.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are tasteless, odorless organic chemicals used in a variety of industrial and commercial applications from their first manufacture in 1929 until they were banned in 1979, according to the EPA. Studies have linked PCBs and multiple cancers in humans, as well as immune, reproductive and neurological maladies in monkeys and other animals.
According to the city, “approximately 99% of the PCBs sold in the United States were manufactured by the Monsanto Company,” which the city says knowingly concealed the risks of the carcinogenic chemicals. Due to their heavily chlorinated structure, PCBs are resistant to degradation once they enter the environment and cycle through air, soil and water. Most humans exposed to PCBs today encounter them by consuming contaminated fish or shellfish, and the lipophilic chemicals build up in skin, fatty tissue and the liver once they enter the human body.
PCBs were manufactured and sold under dozens of trade names, but most of Monsanto’s PCB sales were under the name of Aroclor. By the 1930s, workers at manufacturing facilities and in the field as electricians began developing severe skin irritations from the chemicals, and by 1944 Monsanto advised its salespeople that PCBs were toxic and could cause liver damage. Nevertheless, Monsanto went on concealing the risks of PCBs from the general public, the city says.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, or MMSD, which provides wastewater and flood management services for around 1.1 million people in 28 municipalities across the metro Milwaukee area, joined the city as lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The city and the MMSD are represented by Ted Warpinski, an attorney with the Milwaukee-based firm Halling & Cayo who signed the complaint, as well as legal staff with the MMSD.
The plaintiffs' claims include public and private nuisance, trespass and products liability, among others. They seek, in part, the costs of investigating and remediating PCB contamination, figures which amount to millions of dollars.
PCBs entered the Milwaukee environment, particularly its water systems, through many sources and industrial uses, including construction materials like caulk, roadway paint, fluids in electrical transformers and fluorescent light ballasts, the plaintiffs claim.
Monsanto knew its PCBs would result in widespread environmental contamination that entities like the plaintiffs would have to remediate in the future, but Monsanto just kept selling them throughout the 1950s and 1960s when cities like Milwaukee were developing into population and industrial centers without warning purchasers or the public of the risks, the plaintiffs say.
They say one particular focus for contamination cleanup is the Milwaukee Estuary, which includes portions of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediment have already been removed from these and other local waterways in efforts spearheaded by the EPA and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The disposal facility where the sediments have been stored for years is near capacity, the government bodies say, and it lacks space for sediment that still needs to be removed. A new disposal facility to be owned and operated by the Port of Milwaukee is being constructed in the Milwaukee Harbor, with costs currently estimated to be over $100 million, according to the MMSD’s website.
According to the plaintiffs, the PCB contamination also originated with Milorganite, a trade-name fertilizer made of recycled biosolids from the MMSD’s wastewater treatment plant in which the MMSD first detected elevated levels of PCBs in 2007.
“By the time PCBs were detected, approximately 11 million tons of PCB-contaminated Milorganite had been used in parks and school athletic fields throughout Milwaukee County,” the plaintiffs say in the lawsuit. Lost sales of the fertilizer alone have cost the MMSD nearly $5 million, and PCB testing continues to cost the sewerage district around $52,000 per year.
Efforts by the MMSD to clean up sewers contaminated with the legacy chemicals are ongoing, but one such project noted in the lawsuit resulted in an agreement with a contractor at a cost of more than $10 million. Some of these costs are covered by Chubb Custom Insurance Company, as noted in the lawsuit, in which Chubb appears as an involuntary plaintiff.
Monsanto — which was purchased by German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer in 2018 — denied responsibility for the Cream City’s PCB contamination in a statement emailed to Courthouse News on Thursday.
“Monsanto believes the case is meritless as the company never manufactured or disposed PCBs in or near the Milwaukee area and voluntarily ceased its lawful manufacturing of PCBs more than 45 years ago,” a spokesperson for Monsanto said. “Under applicable law, a manufacturer is not responsible for the downstream, third-party uses of a product that it lawfully introduced into the stream of commerce and over which it has had no control for more than four decades.
“The company has strong defenses and will vigorously defend against these claims."
Monsanto and its subsidiaries and parent company have been dragged into court in recent years over claims they distorted the risks of its other widely sold products and the myriad damages from those products, including a major legal action over the weed killer Roundup.Follow @cnsjkelly
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