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In Chemical Reform Law A Hidden Bailout for Monsanto’s Pollution

Monday, February 29, 2016


As the New York Times reports today, federal lawmakers are poised to let Monsanto off the hook for decades of poisoning American communities with a toxic chemical known to cause cancer and nervous system damage, potentially saving the company billions of dollars.

Slipped at the last minute into the House version, H.R. 2576, of a bill to update the broken Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is a provision that could shield the company from liability for decades of pollution with a family of chemicals made only by Monsanto: polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs. While the insertion was so subtle many lawmakers probably did not even notice it, the implications of the Monsanto bailout clause are huge. The implications of the provision -- added at the last minute -- are significant enough that perhaps it should be called the “Monsanto bailout clause.”   

The clause, found at section 7(c) of H.R. 2576, would likely block PCB lawsuits by both state and local governments and citizens. It would essentially prevent states from passing their own laws or regulations on PCBs. It is written so broadly it could even stop states and individuals from suing under negligence, product safety, clean air, and clean water laws for damages related to PCBs. At stake are a staggering amount of human and environmentl environmental devastation – and a lot of Monsanto’s money.

PCBs are a global contaminant with a long, ugly history. Virtually every man, woman and child in the world carries various levels of PCBs in their blood today. PCBs are so persistent that decades after being banned they still show up in human umbilical cord blood, according to our studies. These toxic chemicals are found in polar bears in the arctic and marine mammals like whales and dolphins in every ocean on the planet. The entire biosphere is polluted with PCBs that are believed to cause a number of serious health problems, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers as well as serious neurological disorders in children. PCBs are so notorious that they are among the relative few toxic industrial chemicals banned globally by international law.

The legacy of PCBs stems almost entirely from the work of one company: Monsanto.

Best known today for its pesticide and seed business – including glyphosate, the chemical in Roundup that is the most used pesticide in history – St. Louis-based Monsanto first made its mark as a chemical company. From the early 1900s, Monsanto produced everything from saccharin added to Coca-Cola, later shown be to toxic, to hazardous chemicals used to make aspirin. By the 1930s the company began producing PCBs, heat- and fire-resistant chemicals that were used in an array of industrial and consumer products including plastics, paint, rubber goods, electrical and hydraulic equipment, caulking, floor finishing, tape, dyes and paper.

Not long after Monsanto introduced PCBs, the company discovered they were health hazards, but hid that information from the public and regulators. This began a decades-long cover-up, the likes of which are unmatched in the annals of corporate environmental malfeasance, and was not fully revealed until internal company documents were unearthed in lawsuits. In 2003, thousands of these documents were made public in EWG’s Chemical Industry Archives, which documented the shocking story of Monsanto’s callous poisoning of Anniston, Ala.

The Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs in 1979. Monsanto got out of the industrial chemical business in 1997 by spinning off a new company called Solutia. But that tactic did not let Monsanto escape its liability. Both companies have been named in numerous lawsuits related to PCB contamination. Last year at least six cities—San Diego, San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle and Spokane, Wash., — sued Monsanto in 2015 to pay for the cleanup of contaminated waterways. Several hundred individuals have also filed suit. Monsanto could face billions of dollars in cleanup costs and compensation to victims.

As litigation loomed and potential damages mounted, Monsanto apparently turned to Congress for a bailout. In June 2015, the House passed H.R. 2576 to update the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the nation’s primary law regulating hazardous chemicals. Drafts of the House TSCA-reform bill, obtained by EWG, from early in April and May say nothing about PCBs. But when the bill was introduced on May 26 – just days after another major PCB suit was filed against the corporation – the bailout clause had been inserted.  The House passed the bill in June. Soon after, Monsanto began lobbying on TSCA for the first time.

Given the timing and potential payoff, one has to wonder whether Monsanto took advantage of these reform efforts to slip in this last-minute provision. 

The Senate bill reforming TSCA, S. 697, has a similar clause. That bill passed in December 2015. Lawmakers made it clear in the Senate committee report that they did not intend for the provision to impact private lawsuits. It is now up to lawmakers from both the House and Senate to reconcile the two bills before it becomes law. If the Monsanto bailout clause makes it into the final version of the bill, it could leave countless victims of PCB poisoning without recourse and faultless, cash-strapped local governments to foot the bill to clean up Monsanto’s mess.


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