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Baltimore sues Monsanto for alleged contamination of stormwater, harbor

Baltimore filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging Monsanto Co. knowingly sold toxic chemicals that have caused “tens of millions of dollars” in damages to the city’s water.

The complaint for public nuisance and products liability claims that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) manufactured by Monsanto, used in products such as paint, coolants, inks and lubricants, were known for decades to be toxic and likely to contaminate natural resources but that Monsanto concealed those facts.

Monsanto is involved in litigation around the country alleging various chemicals it manufactured caused diseases or harmed the environment. The company made headlines last year after a California jury awarded a groundskeeper $289 million in damages, later reduced to $78 million, after determining the company had ignored warnings and evidence that its Roundup weed killer caused cancer like the man’s lymphoma.

Western cities including Spokane, Wash., and San Jose, Calif., and several states have filed lawsuits in recent years seeking damages to pay for cleanup of PCB contamination. Baltimore purports to be the first East Coast city to file such a complaint and the 15th plaintiff nationally.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has an extremely high concentration of PCBs, likely from stormwater runoff carried from the Jones Falls, according to the lawsuit. Available data “strongly suggests” Baltimore’s stormwater system and surrounding waters are “substantially impaired” by the chemical.

The lawsuit is filed by Baltimore as the government responsible for the maintenance and operation of its water systems and water bodies. The city has spent money to comply with state and federal stormwater regulations; more money will be required to address PCB discharges.

“This lawsuit sends a strong message that the City will hold corporations accountable for cleaning up their toxic messes,” City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said in a news release. “The taxpayers are not responsible for Monsanto’s bad acts.”

Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the country from 1935 to 1977, according to the lawsuit. The manufacture and broad use of PCBs was severely restricted by Congress in 1979 under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that PCBs are “probable human carcinogens” and are associated with other health issues, such as lowered immune response and elevated blood pressure. Baltimore’s complaint cites internal communications from the 1950s and 1960s acknowledging the toxic properties and contamination risks of PCBs.

“While the scientific community and Monsanto knew that PCBs were toxic and becoming a global contaminant, Monsanto repeatedly misrepresented these facts, telling the public and governmental entities the exact opposite — that the compounds were not toxic and that the company would not expect to find PCBs in the environment in a widespread manner,” the complaint states.

A spokesperson for Monsanto said the company voluntarily stopped producing PCBs more than 40 years ago and state and federal environmental agencies currently have a system to identify and clean up sources.

“We are still reviewing this lawsuit, but believe the complaint to be without merit and we will defend ourselves aggressively,” Charla Lord said in an emailed statement.

The city seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as a judgment requiring Monsanto to pay for ongoing abatement of the alleged nuisance.

The case was filed by the Baltimore Law Department’s affirmative litigation division and outside counsel from Baron & Budd P.C. in San Diego, Grant & Eisenhofer P.A. in Wilmington, Del., and Gordon, Wolf & Carney Chtd. in Towson.

Monsanto did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Monsanto Company et al., 1:19-cv-00483.


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