'They misled people,' say suburbs that sue chemicals companies over Lake Michigan PCB pollution
Attorneys representing nine North Shore suburbs recently filed a lawsuit against Monsanto and other chemicals companies over the contamination of stormwater with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Laid out in a complaint filed March 24 in Cook County circuit court, the suburbs -- Evanston, Lake Forest, North Chicago, Zion, Beach Park, Glencoe, Lake Bluff, Winnetka, and Winthrop Harbor -- are seeking monetary damages to address the pollution from stormwater discharged to Lake Michigan.
Though the human-made chemicals were banned from production and use in the late 1970s, PCBs continue to enter the environment "through leaks or improper disposal of PCB-containing equipment," according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The primary defendant named in the complaint, Monsanto, was acquired by pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Bayer AG in 2018. Monsanto was an American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation founded in 1901.
Matthew Pawa, an attorney for the municipalities, said Monsanto intentionally misled the public about the environmental and health hazards of PCBs, resulting in widespread contamination.
"When they made them and marketed them, they misled people about their properties and misrepresented that they were safe and nontoxic and could be disposed of in ordinary landfills or flushed down the drain," Pawa said. "That has led to widespread environmental pollution."
PCBs can cause a number of health problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and have been shown to cause cancer in animals and hurt the immune, nervous and reproductive systems.
The chemicals previously were used widely in electrical equipment such as capacitors and transformers, as well as in hydraulic fluids, heat transfer fluids and plasticizers. Before the ban, more than 1 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States.
In a statement released after the filing of the complaint, a Bayer spokesperson said "Monsanto believes the case is meritless as the company voluntarily ceased its lawful manufacturing of PCBs more than 45 years ago, and never manufactured, used or disposed of PCBs in or near the municipalities named in this suit."
"Under applicable law a manufacturer is not responsible for the downstream risks of a product that it lawfully introduced into the stream of commerce and over which it has had no control for more than four decades," the statement said.
A number of suburban Chicago towns now face a state mandate to reduce the amount of PCBs in their storm sewer systems. In 2019, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued a maximum PCB standard for the portion of Lake Michigan that borders the state.
To comply with the regulation, the municipalities pursuing the lawsuit will have to reduce PCB levels in their stormwater that flows to the lake by an estimated 99.6%, according to the complaint.
"That cost should be borne by the company that made these toxins, knowing that they would pollute, and not by the communities," Pawa said.
Pawa said removing PCBs from stormwater runoff is no cheap task, requiring millions of dollars to be put toward solutions such as converting hard spaces like asphalt into green spaces, which would slow runoff and allow the ground to act as a filter.
"You don't have to have a factory in town to be liable," Pawa said. "You just have to be the one who's in a position to avoid the harm."
Also named in the complaint are companies Pharmacia and Solutia -- they inherited Monsanto's former pharmaceutical and chemical products businesses -- and Univar Solutions, which previously distributed Monsanto's products.
Amanda Allman, a spokeswoman for Solutia's parent company, Eastman Chemical, said the manufacturing company has been served with similar lawsuits in other jurisdictions, and "Monsanto has accepted responsibility for defending and indemnifying Solutia in those matters."
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.