(CN) — Agrochemical giant Monsanto agreed to plead guilty to 30 environmental crimes Thursday relating to the illegal use of pesticides in corn fields it owns in Hawaii in 2020. It also agreed to plead guilty to two other charges of storing banned pesticides.
“Monsanto is a serial violator of federal environmental laws,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison in a written statement. “The company repeatedly violated laws related to highly regulated chemicals, exposing people to pesticides that can cause serious health problems.”
As part of the plea agreement, Monsanto — which has been owned by Germany-based chemical titan Bayer since 2018 — agreed to serve three years of probation and pay $12 million in fines. It will also participate in an environmental compliance program for three years.
“The conduct at issue in the agreement is unacceptable and contrary to the values and policies of the company, and we sincerely regret it,” said Darren Wallis, a vice president of communications at Bayer, in a statement. “The company is taking significant remedial actions to enhance its controls, including strengthening its policies and procedures that now require a robust and multistep approval process to authorize the use of pesticides on fields in Hawaii.”
The charges stem from the use of Forfeit 280, an herbicide typically used to control weeds. Use of the substance is not illegal, but it is regulated. Workers may not enter the fields for six days after spraying, a rule that appears on the Forfeit 280 label.
"Monsanto employees... entered the fields less than six days after spraying for the purpose of field-corn scouting," the plea agreement reads. "In total, due to a lack of oversight and supervision by Monsanto, workers violated the new [waiting] period by entering the fields 30 times."
According to Bayer's statement, no workers reported adverse health effects from the sprayings in Hawaii.
In 2019, Monsanto pleaded guilty to illegally using a banned pesticide called Penncap-M in Maui. As part of that earlier deal, the company agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement regarding two felony charges of illegally storing 180 pounds of Penncap-M hazardous waste. Those two charges would have been dismissed had Monsanto complied with the law; instead, the company will now plead guilty to those two counts.
"The defendant in this case failed to follow regulations governing the storage of hazardous wastes and the application of pesticides, putting people and the environment at risk,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency special agent Scot Adair in a written statement.
Thursday's announcement comes on top of several years of legal woes for Monsanto. The company has been sued numerous times by tens of thousands of plaintiffs who claim its herbicide Roundup causes cancer. Some cases have been settled while some plaintiffs have won big awards from juries. Other juries have sided with Monsanto, including one in Southern California on Thursday.
Last month, the California Supreme Court rejected Monsanto's appeal to overturn an $86 million award given to a couple in Livermore, California, who said they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup for years. The company has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in another case, where the company was ordered to pay $25 million to San Francisco Bay Area resident Edwin Hardeman, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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