AG Racine Sues Monsanto for Knowingly Promoting and Selling Toxic Cancer-Causing Chemicals that Damaged the District's Environment

OAG Lawsuit Alleges Monsanto’s Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) Contaminated D.C.’s Land, Wildlife, and Waters, Including Anacostia and Potomac Rivers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today filed a lawsuit against Monsanto Company and two affiliated companies for manufacturing, promoting, and selling toxic chemicals that it knew would pollute waterways, kill wildlife, and endanger District residents. The lawsuit alleges that Monsanto knowingly promoted and sold polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for nearly 50 years, made false statements to regulators and the public about the safety of these products, and failed to adequately warn the public that PCBs caused significant health problems including cancer and liver damage. PCBs were widely used in consumer and industrial products before they were banned in 1979, contaminating the District’s land, water, fish, and wildlife. Due to their high degree of persistence, the chemicals remain in the District’s environment today, still accumulating in fish and wildlife. According to estimates, clean-up and restoration of the District’s natural resources will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is seeking to force Monsanto to pay for past, present, and future costs associated with PCB contamination. OAG is also seeking damages and civil penalties.

“For decades, Monsanto maximized profits by knowingly manufacturing, marketing, and selling toxic chemicals that contaminated the District’s environment, putting the health of our residents and precious natural resources, including the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, at risk,” said AG Racine. “By filing this lawsuit, we are requesting the court to require Monsanto to pay the costs of remediating the PCB contamination in the District.”

Monsanto, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bayer AG, is an American agricultural products company based in St. Louis, Missouri. Two companies that were formerly part of Monsanto—Solutia (which took over Monsanto’s chemical business) and Pharmacia (which took over Monsanto’s pharmaceutical business)—share legal responsibility for the chemicals the old Monsanto company produced, including PCBs.  

PCBs are toxic and persistent chemicals that accumulate in the environment and were used in a wide variety of products, including paints, caulks, inks, sealants, and electrical equipment. Between 1929 and when they were banned in the United States because of the great danger they posed to human health, Monsanto manufactured and sold at least 99 percent of the PCBs used in the U.S. Authorities including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization have classified PCBs as carcinogenic. In addition to causing cancer, exposure to these chemicals has been shown to cause medical problems including liver damage, skin rashes, eye problems, damage to the immune system, and problems with memory and learning. There are no natural sources of PCBs, and these chemicals are extremely persistent, remaining in the environment for decades. They also accumulate and are retained in animal tissue, including fish, which then become dangerous for humans to eat.

OAG’s lawsuit seeks to hold Monsanto accountable for the harm its PCBs have caused to the District’s residents and natural resources under the D.C. Brownfield Revitalization Act, which provides a comprehensive program for the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties in the District, as well as under common law claims. Specifically, OAG alleges that Monsanto:

  • Knowingly sold toxic and harmful products: Monsanto knew as early as 1937 that PCBs were dangerous to human health, but continued to manufacture, market, and sell these chemicals until the late 1970s. Well before the chemicals were banned, internal and external studies documented the toxicity of the compounds, with independent scientists describing PCBs as “an uncontrollable pollutant.” Yet Monsanto continued to manufacture, market, and sell these products until the federal government banned them, and failed to warn the public about safety hazards.
     
  • Misled consumers and regulators to maximize profits: Despite its early knowledge of the dangers associated with PCBs, Monsanto conducted a decades-long campaign of misinformation and deception to prolong the manufacture, sale, and use of PCBs in the District and elsewhere. Monsanto falsely told regulators that they “do not believe PCBs to be seriously toxic,” and could not “conceive how the PCBs can be getting into the environment in a widespread fashion.” They made misrepresentations about safety to consumers and government agencies to protect their business, which generated millions of dollars in profits every year.
     
  • Damaged the District’s natural resources: Monsanto’s PCBs widely contaminated the District’s natural resources through their ordinary use and disposal. The District has identified 36 bodies of water that are contaminated with high levels of PCBs, including the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, the Tidal Basin, the C&O Canal and dozens of small tributaries and creeks. According to the District’s Department of Energy and Environment, these contaminated waters “generally do not support uses by humans and aquatic life.” PCBs have also contaminated fish that live in the District’s waters, and local subsistence and recreational fishermen are advised not to eat most types of fish caught within the District’s boundaries.
     
  • Cost the District millions of dollars in environmental cleanup: The District has already spent millions of dollars to begin cleaning up the PCB pollution to which Monsanto contributed and preventing further contamination, and anticipates that the full cost of clean-up and restoration will add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. PCBs are the driver of the abatement efforts, including the Anacostia River Sediment Project, which is working to make the river safe for recreational activities like boating, fishing, and swimming. The District has also spent significant sums of money on massive water infrastructure projects designed to prevent further discharge of PCBs into waterways.

OAG is seeking to recover damages for harm to the District’s natural resources; past, present, and future costs of abating PCB contamination in the District; and civil penalties.

A copy of OAG’s complaint is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05/DC-v-Monsanto-Complaint.pdf

OAG’s Environmental Work
OAG has devoted new resources to protecting the environment and the health and safety of District residents, and works collaboratively with the Department of Energy and Environment as well as District stakeholders on these issues. OAG is deeply involved in the District’s ongoing cleanup of the Anacostia River and has joined numerous multistate lawsuits to stop the Trump administration from rolling back important environmental protections, such as auto emissions standards and Clean Water Act rules. The office is also focused on addressing persistent local environmental problems, especially those that affect low-income communities of color. Last year, the office filed suit against Ward 5 businesses that repeatedly spilled toxic oil onto sidewalks streets and into District waterways, and forced a landlord to clean up toxic lead paint.

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