Oregon’s attorney general announced a nearly $700 million settlement Thursday with the biotech giant Monsanto for its alleged role in polluting the state over the course of decades with toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
It’s the largest pollution settlement in Oregon’s history and by far the largest Monsanto has paid out to address the forever chemicals that polluted wide swaths of the state.
“Polychlorinated biphenyls have caused and continue to cause devastating impact on Oregon’s natural environment,” Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said during a news conference in Portland. “They threaten the health of the people that use and enjoy our state’s natural resources — our air, our water, our ground, our fish, practically everything in our habitat.”
Monsanto is known today for making the popular Roundup weed-killer, but from the 1930s to just before they were banned in 1979, Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the United States. Since at least 1937, the company knew they were harmful. The chemicals were distributed throughout Oregon in a variety of products, including paint, caulking and electrical equipment.
The Oregon Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in 2018 in state court. In it, attorneys for the state wrote that PCBs are highly toxic and can harm people’s immune systems.
“Even when Monsanto had overwhelming evidence of the hazards that PCBs create, Monsanto continued to flood the country with these toxic materials,” according to the state’s complaint. “Monsanto’s own internal documents show that it was not interested in protecting people or the environment; rather, its only concern was in protecting its balance sheet.”
Monsanto admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement.
PCB contamination is difficult to remove, as the compounds have accumulated in landfills, waterways and wildlife for decades.
Kevin Parrett of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality previously told OPB the state has been laboriously cleaning up PCB pollution for three decades. It’s often a mechanical process that requires the removal or capping of contaminated sediment.
PCBs are a major contaminant in the Portland Harbor Superfund site that’s expected to cost $1 billion to clean up through dredging and capping polluted soil at the bottom of the Willamette River.
Experts say removing PCBs from the environment is the best way to prevent them from harming people, fish and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies them as a probable carcinogen, and they are known to harm immune, reproductive and nervous systems in humans and other living things.
Despite the state’s sizable settlement, Rosenblum acknowledged during Thursday’s news conference it still wasn’t enough money to clean up all the state’s PCB pollution.
The biotech company did not respond to OPB’s request for an interview Thursday after a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge signed off on the settlement.
“The settlement terms reflect the unique challenges and trial procedures in this Oregon venue even though Monsanto voluntarily ceased production of PCBs in 1977 and never manufactured, used or disposed of PCBs in Oregon,” Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer, said in a statement.
In court documents, Monsanto argued that Oregon was wrong in claiming the company was the only source of the state’s PCB contamination because Monsanto didn’t manufacture the chemicals in Oregon and because the chemicals were also manufactured by other companies after Monsanto stopped producing them.
“In fact, PCBs are found in many consumer products today and used in Oregon,” attorneys for the company told the court. “The state paints a misleading portrait of Old Monsanto’s past manufacture of PCBs.”
A report from the Washington Department of Ecology in 2014 found PCBs were still showing up in everyday products such as paint, newspapers and cardboard food packaging.
Monsanto also told the court that the state of Oregon is responsible for some of the PCB contamination because of state-led actions such as stormwater management that allow the chemicals to spill into rivers and the state transportation department’s use of de-icing materials, paints and caulking that contain PCBs.
“PCBs are industrial chemicals that were highly valued by the government and other users for their non-flammability, chemical stability, superior electrical insulating properties, and safety,” the company said. “In 1977, the state of Oregon adopted regulations determining twice the federal PCB levels in products and for disposal to be allowable and safe.”
In its statement, Bayer said the company has filed a lawsuit of its own against former customers who bought PCBs from Monsanto to recover its litigation costs. The company has also settled lawsuits over PCBs with the states of Washington, Ohio, New Hampshire and New Mexico. Those settlements ranged between $23 million and $95 million.
Oregon’s case against Monsanto has been years in the making and went so far as to pick a jury before it was settled, Rosenblum stated.
PCBs are found in “astonishingly high” concentrations in wildlife species higher up the food chain and have entered the food supply, Rosenblum said Thursday. In some cases, she said, PCBs have affected the health of fish, birds, whales and other mammals, “even undermining their ability to reproduce.”
OPB and ProPublica recently paid to have salmon from the Columbia River tested for contaminants and found PCBs in the prized fish that so many people eat – especially in tribal communities.
“While many of us can avoid eating fish from impacted waters, there are many communities that fish out of the Willamette and Columbia, because they need to supplement their diet with fish, or because fish are vital to their cultural or tribal traditions,” Rosenblum said. “So the impact of PCBs is particularly harmful to these communities.”
Oregon plans to place the nearly $700 million payout into a trust for future use.