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Monsanto to pay Oregon $698 million for claimed PCB contamination

Oregon chalked up its largest environmental damage recovery to date for the lingering effects of PCBs.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Chemical manufacturer Monsanto agreed to dole out $698 million over toxic chemicals that Oregon says has polluted its rivers, lakes and forests for the last 90 years.

Owned by Germany-based chemical giant Bayer AG, Monsanto is best known for its herbicide Roundup, which has seen its own share of lawsuits over its possible link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Thursday's settlement in Oregon, however, involves the company’s accused role in manufacturing, selling and distributing polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.

PCBs are a colorless to light yellow crystalline compound once used in coolants, hydraulic oils and electrical equipment such as fluorescent lighting, capacitors and transformers. The compound was used in several other types of products before 1979, when it was banned in the United States due to its potential carcinogenicity. Monsanto ceased production of PCBs voluntarily in 1977.

“This is a huge win for our state,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in a statement early Thursday. “PCBs are still present throughout Oregon — especially in our landfills and riverbeds — and they are exceedingly difficult to remove, because they ‘bioaccumulate’ in fish and wildlife. Cleaning up our state from this horrific environmental degradation will be as costly and time-consuming as it sounds, but this settlement means we now will have resources to help tackle this problem.”

The settlement follows Oregon’s lawsuit against Monsanto in 2018, accusing the company of being aware of the compound’s toxicity as early as 1937. By accepting the settlement, Monsanto does not admit to any wrongdoing.

“Despite knowing as early as 1937 that PCBs were toxic to humans and animals and that PCBs could escape into and contaminate the environment, Monsanto manufactured and sold PCBs until they were finally banned under federal law,” the state said in the complaint. “Even when Monsanto had overwhelming evidence of the hazards that PCBs create, Monsanto continued to flood the country with these toxic materials. Monsanto’s own internal documents show that it was not interested in protecting people or the environment; rather, its only concern was in protecting its balance sheet.”

For its part, a Bayer spokesperson said the settlement terms "reflect the unique challenges and trial procedures in this Oregon venue even though Monsanto voluntarily ceased production of PCBs in 1977 and never manufactured, used or disposed of PCBs in Oregon. Bayer remains committed to defending existing and future cases at trial and won dismissal of a case brought by the state of Delaware earlier this year.”

The Bayer spokesperson also noted the company has filed a lawsuit against former PCB customers "to enforce its indemnification agreements and recover these and other PCB-related litigation costs."

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human exposure to high levels of PCBs have primarily occurred in manufacturing settings with direct contact that resulted in increased levels of some liver enzymes, chloracne and related dermal lesions and respiratory issues. However, recent studies have indicated that consuming PCB-contaminated fish can cause reproductive and developmental defects in newborns and older children and, in high concentrations PCBs are carcinogenic to humans and animals.

Because there are no known natural sources of PCBs, main sources in the environment come from consumer products in landfills, illegal dumping sites, leaks from electrical transformers and capacitors containing the compound or toxic waste sites. But since PCBs are a stable compound and bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain — meaning they become concentrated within living things — they degrade very slowly and are cycled throughout the ecosystem, according to the CDC.

“Monsanto’s toxic legacy unfortunately lives on in our lands, rivers and other waterways — and poses ongoing risks to the health of our people and our environment,” Rosenblum said. “This is all the more reason why this settlement is so vitally important. Oregon and Oregonians will be the better for it.”  

Oregon Governor Kate Brown agreed in a statement, adding, “This settlement is a major step in beginning to reverse the harmful effects of PCBs on Oregon’s environment. I’d like to thank the DOJ staff and attorneys who worked diligently to get us to this point. While it will take some time, I am pleased we can now move forward toward a healthier Oregon.”

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