A couple of great blue herons fishing on the Gunpowder River. Baltimore County is considering a lawsuit that would seek damages from Monsanto for the cost of cleaning the county’s waters of a chemical linked to cancer.
A couple of great blue herons fishing on the Gunpowder River. Baltimore County is considering a lawsuit that would seek damages from Monsanto for the cost of cleaning the county’s waters of a chemical linked to cancer. (Gerry Jackson, Capital Gazette)

Baltimore County soon may ask a federal judge to force agriculture chemical company Monsanto to pay for the cleanup of environmental toxins, following a series of similar lawsuits filed by a dozen cites and states in recent years.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. wants the County Council to approve a contract with three law firms to represent the county in a lawsuit to be filed against the company and two former divisions it sold off. The lawsuit would allege the company contaminated the county’s environment and waters with polychlorinated biphenyls, according to fiscal notes from the county.

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Polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs, are a class of chemicals that have been linked to cancers and harm to immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems in humans and animals, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. PCBs were sold widely to industrial and manufacturing customers, as well as the federal government, for uses that included paints, inks, and electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979.

The county alleges that Monsanto was responsible for over 99% of the nation’s PCB production and that the company was “long aware” of the chemical’s “hazardous nature.” The county is required by state law to identify where cleanup work is needed.

County spokesman T.J. Smith said the county has a responsibility to its residents to recover cleanup costs because it believes Monsanto’s actions “caused harm to our county.”

“This lawsuit signals the administration’s intention to do exactly what other jurisdictions are doing, which is trying to recover for costs we’re bearing as a result of a large corporation’s actions,” Smith said in a statement.

The Maryland Department of the Environment stated that multiple water bodies in the county have been impaired by PCBs, including Gunpowder River, Middle River and Baltimore Harbor, county documents show. The county alleges that county residents “have and will continue” to experience “health impact” from PCB exposure by eating PCB-contaminated fish and shellfish.

The lawsuit also would name Solutia Inc. and Pharmacia LLC as defendants. Those companies were formed out of what were Monsanto’s chemical and pharmaceutical divisions until about two decades ago. A spokeswoman for Eastman Chemical Co., which owns Solutia, referred questions to Monsanto. A spokeswoman for Pfizer, which owns Pharmacia, said the separation agreement reached between Monsanto and Pharmacia requires Monsanto to indemnify Pharmacia for any liabilities related to the company’s agricultural or chemical product businesses.

A spokesman for Bayer, which completed its $66 billion takeover of Monsanto last year, said the company has no knowledge of what the county may be considering. Even so, he said, the former company voluntarily stopped producing PCBs more than 40 years ago.

“Today, where clean-up of chemicals in the environment is required, the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments employ an effective system to identify discharges and clean-up as necessary," said Chris Loder, the Bayer spokesman, in a statement. “Remediation is a complex issue that is best dealt with by regulatory agencies who have the ability consider all the competing issues at stake.”

More than a dozen similar lawsuits have been filed against the companies in recent years on behalf of West Coast cities and the states of Ohio, Oregon and Washington. In 2003, Monsanto and Solutia agreed to pay $700 million to residents of an Alabama town.

Baltimore City filed a lawsuit against the companies in February. Lawyers from the firms Baron & Budd in Dallas, Grant & Eisenhofer in Wilmington, Delaware, and Towson-based Gordon, Wolf and Carney are representing city attorneys on the case. The county’s lawsuit would be spearheaded by those same firms to stress “the regional nature of the problem,” county documents show.

The firms are fronting the litigation costs, and the county would only pay them if a judge awards damages, county documents stated. Even so, the county charter requires council approval any contracts related to “services for a term in excess of two years or involving the expenditure of more than $25,000 per year,” county documents show. The council is expected to meet Tuesday to discuss the litigation.

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