PCBs and Storm Water Contamination

Baron & Budd has fought on behalf of several municipalities against Monsanto Company, which was the sole manufacturer of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Monsanto manufactured these chemical compounds from the 1930s until they were banned in the 1970s. PCBs were used in a wide range of commercial applications between 1950 and 1980, and became ubiquitous global contaminants by the 1960s.  PCBs have been detected in buildings, air, soil, and water.  They have also been found in wastewater as well as storm water, and as a result have contaminated a variety of water systems. Exposure to PCBs is associated with several health risks in humans.  And contamination of natural resources can severely impact fish and wildlife habitats and render lakes and bays unfit for human recreation and fishing. 

What are PCBs?

The term “PCBs” refers to a group of more than 200 chemical compounds that Monsanto produced for more than four decades. They were used in several building and construction applications, such as tapes, caulks, paints, electrical switches, transformers and many others.  When used in a product, PCB molecules migrate out of that product into the air, adjacent materials, soil, or water.  This emission or off-gassing can occur without a physical change to the material into which they were originally introduced.  

Why Are They Dangerous?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified PCBs as a probable human carcinogen. The EPA has also determined that PCBs have been linked to serious health problems in both animals and humans. The toxic effects of PCBs can affect the body’s immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. PCBs have been found in several bodies of water throughout the world, including streams, bays, rivers and oceans, and found in the tissues of all forms of life, including fish, birds, trees, plants and humans.

Studies have linked PCBs to several forms of cancer, including melanoma, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer and others. They accumulate in the body’s fat tissue, skin and liver, and have even been found in breast milk and plasma. The EPA reported that exposure to PCBs can cause problems in both developing fetuses and children, and possibly lead to low behavior assessment and IQ test scores as well as low birth weight.

How Do PCBs Get in Our Water?

There are low levels of PCBs just about everywhere and enter the environment in many different ways. These include packaging, dyes, inks, pesticides and several others. PCBs regularly leach, leak or otherwise escape from their intended applications, running off into municipal water systems, lakes, rivers, streams and more during storms and other rain events. Bodies of water throughout the nation have become contaminated with PCBs, affecting sediments, fish and wildlife.

Many cities that operate municipal storm water systems are under orders to reduce the levels of PCBs in the storm water that they then discharge into bays or rivers.

What Did Monsanto Know?

Court documents show that Monsanto knew PCBs were toxic going back to the 1930s and were contaminating both natural resources and living organisms. However, the company concealed these facts until the Toxic Substances Control Act became law on January 1, 1979. The Act banned not only the manufacture of PCBs, but also their use.

Scientific literature – of which Monsanto was well aware, according to court documents – going back to the 1930s clearly established the danger of PCBs, certain types of which where trademarked under the name “Arcolor.” A company memorandum dated October 11, 1937 advised that “repeated oral ingestion” of Arcolor vapors could “lead to systemic toxic effects.”

A company memo dated September 20, 1955 clearly states that Monsanto knew Arcolors were toxic and concerns were being raised regarding the potential for liver disease. On November 14 of the same year, a member of Monsanto’s medical department advised that, “workers should not be allowed to eat lunch in the Arcolor department.”

Court documents also show that Monsanto continued to keep profiting from the manufacture of PCBs despite their effects on the environment. Another company memo stated that while doing nothing about contamination was “unacceptable from a legal, moral and customer public relations and company policy viewpoint,” the option of leaving the PCB business was also unacceptable. The memo stated, “there is too much customer/market need and selfishly too much Monsanto profit to go out.”

Cities We’ve Represented

Baron & Budd has worked on behalf of the cities of San Jose, CA, Spokane, WA and San Diego, helping them in their efforts to force Monsanto to pay for costs associated with storm water cleanup due to PCB contamination. Here is a brief look at each case.

  • San Jose – Baron & Budd represents San Jose in a lawsuit against Monsanto that alleges the company knowingly contaminated the city’s surface water and San Francisco Bay with PCBs and that the company should pay for cleanup.  Because the city’s storm water flows into the bay, the city must incur costs to reduce the PCB levels. The lawsuit alleges that Monsanto increased production of PCBs despite knowing the chemicals had become a contaminant around the world.
  • Spokane – The city of Spokane also enlisted Baron & Budd’s help in pursuing Monsanto for PCB contamination of the Spokane River. According to an article that appeared in the August 3, 2015 edition of the Seattle Times, a city spokesperson said that keeping PCBs and other contaminants from entering the river would ultimately cost $300 million. 
  • San Diego – This case involves a suit against Monsanto for the cost of cleaning up San Diego Bay due to PCB contamination. The City of San Diego, along with the San Diego Unified Port District, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court of California, Southern District. Not only have PCBs been found in bay sediments and water, but in the tissues of fish as well as other forms of marine life.  The City faces enormous costs to remove PCBs from sections of the Bay and from its storm water.

Monsanto claims that it is not responsible for the costs associated with the cleanup because a previous version of the company manufactured and sold the chemicals. Monsanto also claims it should not be liable because it did not release the PCBs into the storm water, and because PCBs were “legal” when they were manufactured. Along with Monsanto, the other defendants in the case are Solutia, Inc. and Pharmacia Corporation. Solutia is a chemical company that was spun off from Monsanto, while Pharmacia inherited Monsanto’s pharmaceutical business. It is now a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc.


How Baron & Budd Can Help

At Baron & Budd, we are passionate about fighting for the environment and pursuing justice against those who damage our air, land and water. Contact our Environmental Litigation Group at 866-364-6376 for more information.