"We can't afford to lose one dollar of business," one internal memo declared. A committee the company formed... had only two formal objectives: "Permit continued sales and profits" and "protect image of ... the corporation."
Jury finds Monsanto liable for releasing tons of PCB
Michael Grunwald, Washington Post 23feb02
An Alabama jury has found that Monsanto Co. engaged in "outrageous" behavior by releasing tons of polychlorinated biphenyl into the city of Anniston and covering up its actions for decades, handing 3,500 local residents a huge victory in a landmark environmental lawsuit.
The jury in Gadsden, Ala., a town 20 miles from Anniston, yesterday held Monsanto and its corporate successors liable on all six counts it considered: negligence, wantonness, suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass and outrage. Under Alabama law, the rare claim of outrage typically requires conduct "so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society."
After a six-week liability trial, the case now proceeds to a damages phase. Solutia Inc., the corporation formed when Monsanto spun off its chemical division in 1997, has already spent $83 million to settle two other PCB cases in Anniston as well as $40 million on cleanup costs. Shares in Solutia, the lead defendant in the case, plunged 34 percent to $5.80 after yesterday's verdict. Overall, they have plummeted 59 percent from $14.02 since a Jan. 1 story in the Washington Post revealed Monsanto documents showing that the company routinely dumped PCB in Anniston and covered up its behavior for more than 40 years.
Meanwhile, 15,000 additional area residents have filed another lawsuit citing health problems, property damages and emotional distress caused by PCB contamination. And a Senate committee is preparing to hold hearings on the situation.
Solutia CEO John Hunter said his company is "extremely disappointed" with yesterday's verdict. "This case is not over," said Solutia spokeswoman Beth Rusert. "But regardless of how it turns out, we're going to do our part to clean up the PCBs in this community."
Polychlorinated biphenyl has been banned in the United States since 1979, but it was once known as a life-saver, nonflammable coolant that prevented explosions in electrical equipment. From 1935 on, Monsanto was the only American company that made PCB, at one plant in Illinois and another in working-class west Anniston.
Today, PCB is known as a global pollutant and possible carcinogen, although debate still rages over the extent of its risks to human health. The Bush administration recently ordered General Electric to spend $460 million to dredge its PCB out of the Hudson River, but scientists say the situation in Anniston is much worse. Yards and creeks there have the highest levels of PCBs ever recorded in a community, and people have unprecedented PCB levels in their blood.
Anniston residents did not learn about the pollution until 1996, even though documents show that Monsanto knew about it for decades. In 1966, for example, Monsanto managers discovered that fish dunked in a local creek turned belly-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if dunked into boiling water. In 1969, they found a fish in another creek with 7,500 times the legal PCB level. But they never told their neighbors, and concluded that "there is little object in going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges."
"Those people destroyed this community," said David Baker, president of the local group Citizens Against Pollution. "They poisoned us, they profited from us, and now it's time for them to pay."
At the trial, attorneys representing Monsanto and its corporate kin argued that the company acted "promptly and responsibly" to limit its PCB releases once it learned that the chemicals could linger in nature for centuries. They also pointed out that the Anniston plant stopped making PCB eight years before a national ban took effect.
Those arguments were undermined by documents -- many featuring warnings such as "CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy" -- that suggested a companywide preoccupation with maintaining its $22-million-a-year PCB monopoly regardless of health or environmental risks. "We can't afford to lose one dollar of business," one internal memo declared. A committee the company formed to address controversies about PCB had only two formal objectives: "Permit continued sales and profits" and "protect image of ... the corporation."
"Ultimately, Monsanto's own words did them in," said Brendan DeMelle, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group, an anti-chemical advocacy group.