Delaware sues chemical giant Monsanto over PCB contamination

A view of the Delaware River.

A view of the Delaware River. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings is suing Monsanto and two of its subsidiaries for “long-lasting damage” to the state’s natural resources from “extremely toxic” chemicals the company produced for decades.

The lawsuit centers on polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs, that the company produced and which were banned by Congress in 1978.

“Monsanto knew that PCBs were toxic and that once they entered the environment, they would be there to stay,” Jennings said. “Even as PCBs’ environmental harms became undeniable, Monsanto not only continued to manufacture and sell PCBs, but increased production. Now, decades since PCBs were banned, Delaware taxpayers are still footing the cleanup bill. We’re suing Monsanto and its spinoffs to make them pay to clean up their mess.”

The lawsuit says Monsanto knew, or should have known, as early as 1937 that once the company’s PCBs were released into the environment, they would present a serious health risk to humans and wildlife, as well as the environment.

PCBs were used for decades as part of hydraulic fluids and insulating fluids for electric equipment. They were also used in paint, caulking, and other applications.

Jennings says PCBs have done major damage to the state’s waterways including the Delaware River, Delaware Bay, and the Christina River Basin, as well as fish and wildlife throughout the state. It’s damage that still remains even more than 40 years after the Congressional ban on PCB production.

PCB contamination is also one of the key reasons state environmental officials publish a fish consumption advisory table to warn residents not to eat too much fish from certain rivers. Residents are cautioned to only eat one eight-ounce piece of fish caught in certain areas, including the Christina River near the city of Wilmington and the entire length of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. PCB contamination has limited fishing and other recreation uses on waterways throughout the region.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says PCBs are known to cause cancer in animals and the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded they are probable cancer-causing agents for humans.

The state is demanding a jury trial and calling for punitive damages against the company as well as ordering Monsanto to pay the state for the untold cost of abating the damage PCBs have caused here.

Monsanto was bought out by German pharma giant Bayer for more than $60 billion in 2018. The Monsanto name was eliminated from use in the buy-out.

Bayer responded to the Delaware lawsuit in a statement saying it 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 Delaware’s waters, and therefore should not be held liable for the contamination alleged by the state,” the statement said.

Delaware is just the latest state to sue over PCB contamination.

In July 2020, the company announced a plan to pay $650 million to local governments that had filed lawsuits similar to Delaware’s. They also agreed to pay $170 million to New Mexico, Washington state, and the District of Columbia to resolve similar suits.

Also as part of that settlement, Bayer agreed to pay out more than $10 billion to settle cancer lawsuits related to weedkiller Roundup, which had been produced by Monsanto.

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