By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Seed and agrochemical giant Monsanto should pay for the cleanup of a Washington state river polluted with a dangerous chemical contaminant the company manufactured decades ago, the city of Spokane said in a lawsuit.
Toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once used in products ranging from fluorescent lights and appliances to insulation and insecticide, were banned in the late 1970s as carcinogens and general health hazards, though they linger in the environment.
Monsanto was the lone manufacturer of PCBs in the United States from 1935 to 1979, and the company concealed the toxicity from the municipality, city attorneys wrote in a complaint filed last week in U.S. District court.
"Despite Monsanto's knowledge, Monsanto failed to provide adequate warnings that its PCBs would become a global contaminant and contaminate waterways and wildlife, such as Spokane's stormwater and fish in the Spokane River," city attorneys wrote.
While Spokane is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, the lawsuit says the company is responsible for contaminating its wastewater and stormwater with PCBs that the city is legally required to remove before the water flows into the Spokane River. It estimates such treatment amounts to an expected estimated cost of more than $100 million.
Monsanto spokesman Charla Lord said the company is not responsible for cleanup and other lawsuit-related costs.
"Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture, but we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901," Lord said. "The manufacture of PCBs in the United States was banned in 1979, although the former Monsanto voluntarily ceased production and selling before that."
Lord also said that PCBs sold at the time were a "lawful and useful product that was then incorporated by third parties into other useful products" such as fire protection in electrical equipment, among other uses.
"If improper disposal or other improper uses created the necessity for clean-up costs, then these other third parties would bear responsibility for these costs," Lord said.
The Spokane River is currently violating water quality standards for the presence of PCBs, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found PCBs are probable human carcinogens, and that they exert significant toxic effects on the immune, reproductive, and nervous systems in primates.
(Aditional reporting Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Missouri; Editing by Sandra Maler)