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Portland to sue Monsanto for PCB contamination


The city of Portland is teaming up with six other West Coast cities to separately sue Monsanto Co. for health and environmental damages caused by products containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The City Council unanimously agreed Wednesday to authorize the city to sue Monsanto, the exclusive manufacturer of PCBs in the United States from 1935 until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned their manufacture in 1979.

PCBs were widely used in electrical and other industrial processes, but have been shown to be highly persistent in the environment and a likely cause of cancer in humans and animals.

Documents show Monsanto knew as far back as 1969 that PCBs led to contamination of fish, oysters and birds, said John Fiske, a senior trial attorney with Gomez Trial Lawyers of San Diego, in a presentation before the City Council on Wednesday. The company realized its product might cause “global contamination,” Fiske said, yet continued to peddle its product, “choosing profits over environmental health.”

PCBs are among the most potent contaminants in the Willamette River bottom and are one of the main targets of the massive Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup project.

Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release its proposed cleanup plan for the Superfund site as soon as the first week in April, that was not the reason the city decided to sue Monsanto right now, said Tracy Reeve, city attorney.

Rather, Portland had a chance to join the other six cities in a cooperative legal strategy.

The cities, which include Seattle, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, Spokane and Berkeley, would each file separate lawsuits against Monsanto in federal court, but use the same two law firms, Gomez Trial Lawyers and Baron & Budd in Texas.

The law firms intend to file a motion March 31 in a proceeding in Santa Barbara, Calif., to ask that one judge handle all seven suits. The law firms would conduct discovery and other legal motions on behalf of all seven cities, saving on legal fees.

The two law firms also agreed to work on a contingency basis, getting a share of the penalties rather than charging on a per-hour basis.

As a result, Reeve said, this litigation will result in only minor administrative costs to the city.

In an email statement, Monsanto spokesman Sam Murphey said the St. Louis-based company is reviewing the lawsuit and its allegations, but isn't responsible for the alleged damages. The company has reorganized since it halted production of PCBs and has undergone a series of mergers, acquisitions and spinoffs, and says it's now a different company legally.

"Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture, but we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901," Murphey stated.

"That company manufactured and sold PCBs that at the time were a lawful and useful product that were then incorporated by third parties into other useful products," he added.

It's the third parties, including landfill operators, who bear responsibility for leakage of products containing PCBs into waterways, he said.

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