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Chicago Sues Monsanto for “Widespread Contamination” of the Chicago River

“Records show that Monsanto intentionally misled the public,” a Chicago lawyer said.

People walk along the lakefront on April 11, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago is suing the Monsanto Corporation for producing cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The complaint filed in Cook County court last week alleges that the company caused “widespread contamination” across the banks and sediment of the Chicago River which the city continues to bear the cost of cleaning up.

The Monsanto Corporation was the sole producer of PCBs, which were used in electrical equipment and other industrial applications, in the United States from the 1930s through 1977. While the U.S. banned the production of PCBs more than 40 years ago because the chemicals are harmful to human and environmental health, PCBs continue to be released into the Chicago waterways through stormwater.

“For decades, Monsanto knew that its commercial PCB formulations were highly toxic and would inevitably produce precisely the contamination and human health risks that have occurred. Yet Monsanto intentionally misled the public,” the complaint says.

PCBs are linked to a number of potential health threats, including cancer, and studies have shown that pregnant women who have consumed fish contaminated with PCBs have given birth to children with neurological damage.

“The accumulation of PCBs in natural resources, and fish in particular, poses a public health threat to Chicago residents,” the suit says.

As a result of the contamination, Chicago is being required by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce PCB contamination in stormwater that is discharged to Lake Michigan by an estimated 99.6%.

“These violations [by Monsanto] have caused and will cause the City to incur costs reasonably related to these violations of law. These costs include the costs of cleaning up contaminated sites and reducing PCB concentrations in the City’s stormwater,” the lawsuit says.

Chicago is following the lead of other cities and states that have sued Monsanto, alleging that Monsanto knew of the environmental and health risks of the chemicals before they were officially banned. According to a memo published by The Poison Papers project, the company was aware of the health and environmental problems posed by PCBs at least as early as 1969, eight years before it stopped producing the chemicals.

“Records show that Monsanto intentionally misled the public despite knowing the dangers PCBs posed to the environment,” said Mary Richardson-Lowry, an attorney for the City of Chicago, in a statement. “We bring this lawsuit to ensure that polluters are held accountable for their actions.”

Last year, Illinois’ Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed a similar suit against the company, alleging that Monsanto contributed to statewide contamination by producing PCBs. That case is now progressing in federal court. Bayer, the German company which bought Monsanto in 2018, has also agreed to settle other PCB-related lawsuits brought by Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Oregon. Monsanto is also currently facing other lawsuits in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington.

In a statement, a Monsanto representative told CBS News Chicago that the case is “meritless” and “the company never manufactured or disposed of PCBs in or near the Chicago area.” The company claims the chemicals were instead manufactured by unnamed “third parties,” although the company’s relationship with these firms remains unclear.

“Moreover, the products that are alleged to be the source of any environmental impairments were manufactured by third parties, not Monsanto, “ the statement claims. “Additionally, the City itself may be responsible for water quality impairments as it has over 200 combined sewage outfalls that discharge into the Great Lakes watershed.”

“This PCB contamination constitutes a substantial and unreasonable interference with rights enjoyed by the public, including rights under Article XI of the Illinois Constitution,” the Chicago lawsuit says. “This contamination has caused harm that is severe and greater than the City and the public should bear without compensation.”