Baltimore is asking a federal judge to force agriculture chemical company Monsanto to pay for cleanup of environmental toxins known as PCBs, following more than a dozen mostly West Coast cities and states that have filed similar lawsuits in recent years.
The lawsuit announced Tuesday doesn’t specify damages, but City Solicitor Andre Davis accused the company and two former divisions it sold off of causing tens of millions of dollars in damages.
The lawsuit says the contamination has caused monetary damages to be determined at trial.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, a type of man-made chemicals used widely in paints, inks, lubricants and electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979, have been linked to cancers and harm to immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems in humans and animals.
The city argues that Monsanto long knew of those harms and that the chemicals would never break down in the environment, animals or humans, yet continued to use them.
“This lawsuit sends a strong message that the City will hold corporations accountable for cleaning up their toxic messes,” Davis said in a statement. “The taxpayers are not responsible for Monsanto’s bad acts.”
The lawsuit also names 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. As part of their separation from Monsanto they assumed liability related to those divisions of the original Monsanto company.
In the complaint, the city says PCBs are prevalent in waterways including the Inner Harbor, Patapsco River and Lake Roland. They have been measured in Inner Harbor sediment and Lake Roland wildlife, and are also thought to flow into waterways via contaminated stormwater systems. Scientists are still searching for ways to get rid of them.
A spokeswoman for Bayer, which completed a $66 billion acquisition of Monsanto last year, said Monsanto voluntarily stopped producing PCBs more than 40 years ago and that, where cleanup is necessary, federal and state authorities “employ an effective system to identify dischargers and clean-up as necessary.”
“We are still reviewing this lawsuit, but believe the complaint to be without merit and we will defend ourselves aggressively,” the spokeswoman, Charla Lord, said in an emailed statement.
A spokeswoman for Pfizer, which owns Pharmacia, referred questions to Monsanto. Representatives for Solutia, a subsidiary of Eastman Chemical Co., could not be reached for comment.
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 Oregon and Washington. Ohio filed another case last year, but Baltimore’s is the first on the East Coast, litigators said.
John Fiske, a lawyer with Baron & Budd working on a number of the cases, including Baltimore’s, said all are being actively litigated and some have trial dates. None have been resolved yet, he said.
In each of the cases, attorneys said they are using documents that came to light in past lawsuits seeking to hold Monsanto accountable for PCB dumping and exposure. In one of them, in 2003, Monsanto and Solutia agreed to pay $700 million to residents of an Alabama town. In 2016, a St. Louis jury awarded $17.5 million to three plaintiffs who said PCBs caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In other cases, juries have rejected arguments that Monsanto is liable for cases of cancer and other illnesses.
Baltimore’s lawsuit cites documents showing Monsanto was aware of the toxicity of PCBs as early as 1937.
Lawyers from the firms Baron & Budd, Grant & Eisenhofer and Gordon, Wolf, and Carney are working with city attorneys on the case. The firms are fronting the litigation costs and are working on contingency, meaning the city would only pay them if it wins damages, said Susan Sangree, director of affirmative litigation for the city law department.