PCB Contamination

The Environmental Law Group (ELG) has represented a number of public entities in groundbreaking litigation involving polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. PCBs are manufactured chemical compounds that widely contaminate city stormwater and run off to pollute streams, rivers, and bays. Many cities are forced to undertake expensive treatment to remove PCBs from stormwater before discharging it into bodies of water.

In the United States, Monsanto Company was the sole manufacturer of PCBs from the 1930s until Congress banned PCB manufacture in the 1970s. PCBs were used in a variety of products including stain proofing and waterproofing fluids, and several building and construction applications, such as tapes, caulks, paints, electrical switches, transformers and many others. Monsanto knew but did not tell anyone that, when used in a product, 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. Low levels of PCBs have been found just about everywhere — in buildings, air, soil, water, marine animals, and birds.

The burden of PCB contamination has fallen heavily on the nation’s cities and states. Since filing a single lawsuit in 2015 on behalf of the City of San Diego, ELG has represented a number of cities in litigation against Monsanto to recover costs associated with PCB-laden stormwater and to protect natural resources. After seven years of litigation on behalf of several cities, Scott Summy negotiated a phenomenal nationwide settlement on behalf of a class of stormwater operators and other governmental subdivisions. Under the terms of the settlement, Monsanto agreed to pay $550,000,000 in cash payments to class members to resolve claims arising from PCB contamination of stormwater and sediments. In March, 2022, the District Court for the Central District of California appointed ELG’s Scott Summy, Carla Burke Pickrel, and John Fiske as Class Counsel for the class. The case is City of Long Beach, et al. v. Monsanto Co., No. 2:16-cv-03493-FMO-AS (C.D.Cal.) www.pcbclassaction.com.  On November 19, Judge Olguin granted final approval of the class settlement.  Class members will start receiving payments in early 2023.

ELG previously represented the State of New Mexico, the State of Washington, and the District of Columbia in similar lawsuits against Monsanto.

By pursuing these cases, ELG has benefited communities nationwide by providing funds to test, restore, and protect precious waterbodies.

These cases also allow states and municipalities to take steps to protect human and environmental health by reducing exposures of people and animals to PCBs. 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. In some water bodies, PCBs contaminate fish and wildlife habitats, threatening species and rendering fish unfit for human consumption. 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.

ELG has obtained documents showing that Monsanto knew PCBs were toxic going back to the 1930s and were contaminating both natural resources and living organisms. The company concealed these facts for decades, however, 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 were 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.”

ELG has recovered more than half a billion dollars on behalf of public entities in PCB litigation.