Anniston, Alabama

A town forever changed by Monsanto

March 27, 2009

Anniston, Alabama: Monsanto Responds to PCBs in Wildlife

"The committee believes there is little probability that any action that can be taken will prevent the growing incrimination of specific polychlorinated biphenyls (the higher chlorinated-e.g. Aroclors 1254 and 1260) as nearly global environmental contaminants leading to contamination of human food (particularly fish), the killing of some marine species (shrimp), and the possible extinction of several species of fish eating birds." ["Confidential Report of Aroclor Ad hoc Committee"; October 2, 1969]

From polar bears in the Arctic to penguins in Antarctica, PCBs have wreaked havoc on wildlife for decades. Since PCBs accumulate in body fat, and concentrations increase significantly each step up the food chain as large predators absorb all the PCBs stored in their prey, the highest concentrations appear at the top of the food chain in the oldest predators. Because killer whales are at the top of the marine food chain, and they can live to be 80 years old, subsisting on other long living prey like seals and salmon, they have the highest levels of PCBs. Recent studies of killer whales in the Gulf of Alaska revealed that the killer whales in that water body are among the most heavily PCB-laden marine mammals in the world, and their numbers are in rapid decline. []

But top predators are not the only wildlife affected by PCBs in their bodies. Many other species of wildlife have been threatened. As the following documents show, Monsanto was aware of these issues, and even predicted the extinction of some wildlife species, yet the company did nothing to stop this from happening. Also, Monsanto conducted extensive surveys of PCB concentrations in fish both near the Anniston plant and farther afield. The testing revealed dangerously high levels of PCBs, yet the company failed to warn local residents who were eating the contaminated fish. It wasn't until 1993, nearly thirty years after Monsanto knew definitively about the fish contamination in Anniston, that local residents were warned by Alabama officials not to eat the fish from waterways downstream from the Monsanto facility. Despite strong warnings in the 1960s from university scientists and others, including a warning that PCB levels in Anniston streams could endanger local children and pets, Monsanto continued to pollute the streams in Anniston, some of which showed no forms of life, and said nothing to the people of Anniston about the pollution.

Persistence Prevails

Monsanto claims that it didn't know about the persistence or accumulation of PCBs in the environment until 1966.

"And the truth is that in 1966 when we found out that PCBs were in the environment, we started an investigation journey and we tried to gather information and we acted responsibly." [Trial Transcript, Owens v. Monsanto CV-96-J-440-E, (N.D Alabama April 5, 2001), pg. 454, line 6]

However, in 1960, years prior to the public learning about the persistent nature of PCBs in the environment, Monsanto wrote to a customer in Pennsylvania who used one of the company's Pydraul hydraulic fluids which contained PCBs:

"As you know, the Pydraul fluids are insoluble in water as well as heavier than water. Unless these materials are strongly emulsified they will sink to the bottom of any receiving stream and as such will not give rise to the typical picture of oil pollution. If the material is discharged in large concentrations it will adversely effect the organisms in the bottom of the receiving stream which will effect the aquatic life in the stream.

We have had no experience with any regulatory agency concerning the discharge of these materials. I would imagine that these agencies would frown on the discharge of large quantities of any type hydraulic fluid.

Based on the toxicity studies of these fluids with laboratory animals I would not expect them to be very toxic to aquatic life. On the other hand, this is a surmise on my part since we have no tests on aquatic animals." [Monsanto to PA customer; August 29, 1960]

A document from 1969 reveals additional evidence that Monsanto knew prior to 1966 of PCBs' ability to persist in the environment. As the document explains, PCBs had been mixed with soil and buried in test plots back in 1939 during an experiment into the use of Aroclors as termite repellants. As the document notes, a Monsanto employee had returned to the test area in 1963 and found the Aroclors were still there:

"Marsh had reasons to look at some of these sample plots in June of 1963 and recalls that in some instances there was still visual evidence of the presence of Aroclor." [Wheeler to Richard; April 8, 1969 Re: Aroclor Degradation in Soil]

"There is no doubt"

In 1966, the world got its first glimpse into the persistence of PCBs when a Swedish scientist who was studying the pesticide DDT (another Monsanto product) found a second compound that was exhibiting many of the same characteristics in tests. The "mystery peak" on the scientists' testing equipment turned out to be PCBs. Probing further, the scientist had found PCBs in the hair of his entire family and he also discovered PCBs in fish, birds and pine needles, leading to the conclusion that PCBs were persistent and widespread in the environment.

According to a letter sent to Monsanto Europe representatives from Rising & Strand, a Swedish firm, documenting the Swedish study:

"PCB is found in the water and in air, and not only in the Swedish air, but also in e.g. London air. Mr. Jensen has not yet been in London for sampling but could identify the poison by studying a gas chromatogram of air published in a British technical journal.

Mr. Jensen har [sic] also examined the hair of his family and himself and has found PCB on all samples. Most PCB was found in the hair of his wife but most sensational was that the girl aged 5 months had more PCB in her hair than her brothers and sisters of 3 and 6 years. Probably the girl had got the poison via the mother's milk.

In the State Museum Mr. Jensen has examined the whole collection of sea eagles dating back to 1880. By testing it could be established that PCB was present only in birds from 1944 and thereafter while birds collected before 1944 were quite free from PCB." [Rising & Strand to D. Wood Brussels; November 28, 1966]

The memo also reveals that:

"Mr. Jensen also found that PCB does not appear in animals living on a vegetarian diet, such as the elk." [Rising & Strand to D. Wood Brussels; November 28, 1966]

The memo concludes:

"I suppose there is no doubt that what has been termed Polychlorinated Biphenyls is equal to Aroclor. There is also no doubt that the published facts will cause considerable unrest in several quarters. We probably will have to have Aroclor registered with the Swedish Board of Poisonous Substances and the industry will have to be particularly careful in handling the material. The problem in some cases of course may be the disposal of used material. I understand that there hardly exists a convenient method of destroying Aroclor and that possibly burying unuseable material may be the only answer." [Rising & Strand to D. Wood Brussels; November 28, 1966]

Contractors Find Problems in Anniston

Meanwhile, 1966 was also shaping up to be a revealing year back in the U.S., where Monsanto was learning just how bad the pollution problem was at the Anniston plant, and the frightening toll their waste effluent was having on living organisms.

As this document explains:

"In the late summer of 1966, the Zoology Department of Mississippi State University entered into a contract with the Monsanto Chemical Company to investigate certain physical, chemical, and biological properties of the Choccolocco Creek Drainage in Alabama..... A specific goal was to examine evidence and information related to the fish kill that occurred in Choccolocco Creek in March 1966." [Final Report Investigations of Certain Pesticide-Wildlife Relationships in the Choccolocco Creek Drainage; August 31, 1967]

In a November 2, 1966 memo from the Mississippi State College Professor of Zoology to Monsanto, the scientist explains the results of recent caging experiments in the local waterways. The tests involved placing cages filled with 25 live bluegill fish at thirteen different locations in the Choccolocco Creek Drainage (the system of waterways that accepted wastes from the Monsanto plant). The results were troublesome, indicating that Snow Creek was "devoid of life."

"3. A branch of Snow Creek originating in the Monsanto plant and flowing east under Highway 202 and thence north. Water Temp. = 32.1 C. Result: All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10 seconds andall were dead in 3 minutes. The gill covers (opercles) immediately assumed a flared position, and blood issued from the gills after 3-minutes exposure."


"Miscellaneous observations

Our preliminary inspections indicate Snow Creek to be devoid of life. The stream is characterized by a distinctive color.....


"The outflow to Snow Creek from the east side of the Monsanto Plant (at Highway 202) contains some extremely toxic materials and kills fish in less than 24 hours when diluted 300 times. In a flowing system (as opposed to our static tests) and under conditions of constant exposure, this effluent would probably kill fish when diluted 1000 times or so. Since this is a surface stream that passes through residential areas, it may represent a potential source of danger to children, domestic animals, etc.

Although our caging experiments lasted only 48 hours, they revealed toxic conditions extending from the Monsanto Plant to Choccolocco Creek and downstream. Prolonged exposures of weeks and months to these substances could very likely kill fish at all points in Choccolocco Creek below the mouth of Snow Creek. (We have some long-term caging experiments in progress.)" ...

Mr. Fuhrmeister, can your people tell us what is going into Snow Creek?" [Ferguson to Fuhrmeister; November 2, 1966]

There is no indication Monsanto adequately addressed the disturbing conclusion in the scientist's report about risks to children and pets:

"Since this is a surface stream that passes through residential areas, it may represent a potential source of danger to children, domestic animals, etc."

Nearly a year later, in their Final Report to Monsanto, the Mississippi State scientists relayed to Monsanto a number of disturbing findings:

"When a tributary of Snow Creek originating within the Monsanto Plant was found to be devoid of life, samples of water from the stream were used to bioassay bluegills. The fish lost equilibrium in the full strength water in ten seconds and all died in less than 5 minutes. Bluegills survived less than 16 hours when bioassayed in 1 part Snow Creek water diluted with 300 parts tap water. Further investigations showed unfavorable pH and mercury to be the lethal agents." [pg.6] "Fish Kills: There is a disturbing amount of low-level mortality among Choccolocco Creek fishes and a few dead individuals can be found most anytime, especially from Jackson Shoals downstream. A further indication that some sublethal factor may be present is the apparently high incidence of diseased fish. Several fish were observed near Jackson Shoals that had large patches of fungus on them." [pg. 12]

Among the conclusions of the Mississippi scientists were some very straightforward warnings to Monsanto:

"3. Snow Creek is a potential source of future legal problems. The stream does not support life and contains many materials that accumulate in water, fish, and muds downstream. Although there is no evidence that these materials are harmful to fish, their presence constitutes damaging evidence of pollution. The argument that these compounds impart undesirable palatability qualities to Choccolocco Creek fish would be very convincing and probably easy to prove. 4. Choccolocco Creek fish populations are subject to continued low-level mortality and periodic massive die-offs. There are reports of fish kills in Dry Creek; Coldwater Creek is highly polluted. Monsanto needs to monitor the biological effects of its effluents as a protection against future accusations."

The recommendations of the Mississippi State University scientists were brutally honest:

"1. Do not release untreated waste in the future!
2. Clean-up Snow Creek.
3. In the event of a future fish kill, collect samples of fish and water and immediately call in a qualified consultant.
4. A qualified biologist should inspect Choccolocco Creek periodically, perhaps every other month, to document the status quo in the event of another fish kill. [Mississippi State University Final Report]

As noted in the report, mercury was named as one of the lethal agents in the fish studies. Mercury was used in the production of PCBs, and it presents a significant pollution problem in Anniston. 

Monsanto Worries About "The Wildlife People"

A company memo dated December 30, 1968 describes one employee's thoughts about the situation Monsanto was facing regarding the attention being paid to environmental damage linked to chemicals, especially its PCBs (a.k.a. Aroclor):

"The wildlife people are dedicated to the demise of DDT. Our problem is that Aroclor has been "identified" along with DDT residues and hence we are almost certain of being drawn into the court records and may also be one of the scapegoats of the DDT defense. The wildlife people have accused Aroclor of doing all the bad things of DDT." [W.R. Wright to W.A. Kuhn; December 30, 1968]

It is clear that the company was very worried about the "accusations in the literature that chlorinated biphenyls are poisoning and killing wildlife." Monsanto was determined to stay one step ahead of "these wildlife people." This memo also explains that Monsanto was conducting tests on animals to determine "a safe level for Aroclor feeding." It seems that their goal was to find a level at which the test animals would not accumulate PCBs, and then stage a two-year "experiment," no doubt hoping to show that PCBs were not harmful to wildlife. But, as the author of the memo surmised:

"This will help a bit but the wildlife people won't be stopped by this kind of evidence."

The memo's author urged the company to reduce air and stream pollution, worrying that:

"I believe we should make sure that our plants have minimum air or stream pollution. I believe Anniston is vulnerable and that off-gas HCl and Aroclor should be 100% controlled."

The memo concluded that the company should act quickly because the "wildlife people" would probably target PCBs once an ongoing court case against DDT had subsided:

"We probably have 6 months to 1 year while they fight out the DDT case. I want to use this time to minimize our exposure." [W.R. Wright to W.A. Kuhn; December 30, 1968]

"Greater degree of toxicity...than we had anticipated"

Over the next few years, Monsanto conducted PCB toxicity tests on a variety of animals, including dogs, [testing documents] rats, fish and chickens. Their findings were anything but encouraging. In a January 29, 1970 memo from Monsanto's Medical Department to a Monsanto employee in Brussels, a company doctor reported that:

"Our interpretation is that the PCB's are exhibiting a greater degree of toxicity in this chronic study than we had anticipated. Secondly, although there are variations depending on species of animals, the PCB's are about the same as DDT in mammals. We have additional interim data which will perhaps be more discouraging. We are repeating some of the experiments to confirm or deny the earlier findings and are not distributing the early results at this time." [Wheeler to Cameron]

"Aroclors [PCBs] are highly stable under all known conditions"

In a July 8, 1970 letter to a customer regarding the toxicity of PCBs, Monsanto's Manager of Environmental Control, William Papageorge, explained the company's thoughts on both the persistence and toxicity of PCBs:

"Biodegradability - Biodegradation studies conducted in our research laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri and in Ruabon, Wales using media consisting of local river waters or activated sludges acclimated to biphenyl give direct evidence that the lower chlorinated biphenyls are affected. There is some evidence that chlorine position on the biphenyl configuration does influence the degree of destruction by the microorganisms. I have enclosed a tabulation from our Ruabon laboratory which attempts to show this difference. We do not have formal information regarding the effect of sunlight or other natural influences on Aroclors. Experience gained over many years indicates Aroclors are highly stable under all known conditions present in the environment.

Toxicity - There is ample evidence from many laboratories that certain species of birds which are at the top of the marine food chain cannot reproduce properly when PCB's are present in their diets.

The U.S. Fisheries laboratory at Gulfbreeze, Florida conducted a study which indicated that juvenile brown shrimp did not survive in water containing 5 parts per billion of PCB." [Papageorge to Jenkins; July 8, 1970]

The harmful effects of PCBs weren't only being discovered in the laboratory. As this document [Report of Aroclor "Ad Hoc" Committee] describes, U.S. government agencies had found PCBs in dead eagles and marine birds. It also describes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had contacted Monsanto to inform the company that the State of Georgia had found PCBs in milk samples, and discusses other cases involving contaminated milk.

Another Monsanto plant had also drawn the attention of the U.S. government. A subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Interior had found PCBs in the Escambia River below Monsanto's Pensacola, Florida plant, where PCBs were used (not manufactured). The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries reported that its tests revealed that concentrations of 5 parts per billion of Aroclor 1254 had killed juvenile brown shrimp in just 18 days. [Report of Aroclor "Ad Hoc" Committee]

Another Monsanto description of the shrimp study is contained in the "Confidential Report of the Aroclor Ad hoc Committee.":

"Shrimp--In August, 1969, West Florida State University at Pensacola reported to our Pensacola Plant that PCB's (Aroclorl254) had been found in the Escambia River below our outfall. The amount was reported as 40-45 parts per billion one quarter mile below the plant and 1 ppb at the bridge ovcr the river as it enters Pensacola Bay.

The Gulf Breeze Laboratories of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (U.S. Department of Interior) at Pensacola next reported that 40 ppb killed baby shrimp in 96 hours. Further study indicated that 5 ppb killed 18 of 25 baby shrimp in 18 days.

Plant investigation revealed that one to three gallons per day of Aroclor 1254 was being lost to the river from the use of Pydraul AC in air compressors." [Confidential Report of the Aroclor Ad hoc Committee; October 15, 1969]

Monsanto was, justifiably, concerned about this problem.

"The incident at the Monsanto Plant at Pensacola indicates that all Monsanto Plants using Aroclors should be made aware of the potential problem and efforts made to eliminate any losses. The significance of "any losses" may be related to the one to three gallons per day which was being lost at the Pensacola Plant." [Report of Aroclor "Ad Hoc" Committee]

High PCB Levels Found in Fish

Back in Anniston, where a recent equipment failure had resulted in the loss of 1,500 gallons of Aroclor from the plant [E.G. Wright to W.B. Papageorge; November 20, 1969], and the plant was regularly discharging an average of 16 pounds of PCBs into Snow Creek, Monsanto was sending employees out with fishing poles to catch samples from Choccolocco Creek for testing. An August 6, 1970 memo revealed that a Blacktail Shiner fish which had been caught in the Creek and tested for PCB residue contained 37,800ppm of Aroclor 1254 in its fat (by comparison, the FDA action level for PCBs in fish is 2ppm). [CPG 7108.19 and CFR 109. 30 (A)] The fish had been caught 7-8 miles below the confluence with Snow Creek, roughly 15 miles downstream from the plant. Other samples taken from the same area, while not as high, indicated that PCBs were bioaccumulating in several species' fatty tissues to a high degree: lipid tests on a Warmouth fish revealed 17,590 ppm of Aroclor 1254; a Green Sunfish 7970 ppm; a Largemouth Bass 9720 ppm; frogs contained 4700 ppm. [E.S. Tucker to Papageorge; Aug 6 1970]

Monsanto Buys Contaminated Hogs Without Revealing Contamination

In the winter of 1970, an Anniston resident who lived near the plant and repeatedly grazed the family hogs on a hill nearby, unaware that it was company property, was approached by a Monsanto employee who inquired about the swine. The Monsanto employee first told the resident to remove the pigs from the company's property, but then quickly returned to offer the resident $25 a head for the hogs and a bottle of white corn liquor for the trouble. The resident accepted the offer, happy to have the extra money just before Christmas time. [Trial Transcript, Owens v. Monsanto CV-96-J-440-E, (N.D. Alabama April 5, 2001), pg. 551, line 1]

While this episode is not discussed in detail in the Monsanto documents, the coincidence of a December 21, 1970 memo from E.S. Tucker to W.B. Papageorge (both Monsanto employees) seems to confirm the resident's story about this incident. It is believed that Monsanto shot the pigs, and before burying them as hazardous waste in the plant dump, tested them for PCB content, as this document seems to confirm. [E.S. Tucker to W.B. Papageorge; December 21, 1970]

The memo, with the subject line "PCB CONTENT OF HOG FAT AND LIVER SAMPLES SENT FROM ANNISTON," mysteriously contained no description of the subject matter, only stating that:

"E.G. Wright should be contacted for details regarding the source of these samples, etc." [E.S. Tucker to W.B. Papageorge; December 21, 1970]

The analysis revealed that the hogs were highly contaminated, having as much as 19,000 ppm of PCBs in their fat. The company never announced its findings publicly, nor were residents ever warned not to eat livestock that regularly grazed near the plant and drank from the drainage ditches.

"...the data are detrimental to Monsanto"

In 1971, a Congressional subcommittee released a report criticizing Monsanto's pollution problems in Anniston. Monsanto reacted defensively, asking one of its contractors to try to produce evidence that could be used to counter the negative publicity. A memo from the firm that Monsanto had hired to conduct fish tests explained:

"However, considering the unfavorable publicity Monsanto Company recently received as a result of the congressional sub-committee report, we felt it imperative that we submit an interim report to Mosnanto [sic] Company at this time in order to insure that both parties (Monsanto and consultants) may know where we presently stand with regard to the PCB residue analyses."

The memo revealed that:

"However the results are not good since both analyses show us that Aroclor 1254 residues have not decreased as we had hoped they would. Considering the residual nature of P.C.B's we were certainly optimistic to say the least."

"At this point we would have to say that the data are detrimental to Monsanto."

"In the future we must be able to demonstrate considerable decreases in residue levels here if we are to show environmental improvement."

"In summary, there is nothing we can do with the residue data at this point that would allow Monsanto to counteract the unfavorable public opinion that may result from the congressional sub-committee report (which we have not seen). Perhaps the June, 1971 data will show a decrease that is not apparent at this point-we can only hope that this will be the case."

"We are very sorry that we can't paint a brighter picture at the present time. However, we all know that we have to study these situations carefully and that we must be able to document any claims of environmental improvement before they are released for public consumption." [Bio Consultants Suttkus and Gunning to E.G. Wright; August 15, 1971]

The following summer (1972), Biological Consultants sent a report to Monsanto describing the findings of its first year of studies involving fish samples taken from the local waterways, most notably Choccolocco Creek. The report's findings were as follows:

"1) The data for the first year of the survey indicate clearly that the fishes below the Monsanto outfall have concentrated the PCB residues to a very high level. The highest values obtained for fishes were at Stations 7, 8, and 10 in Choccolocco Creek. Secondly, fishes below the confluence of Choccolocco Creek and the Coosa River concentrate the PCB residues to a greater degree than do their counterparts upstream from the confluence. However, the relative amounts are much smaller in the Coosa River (Logan Martin Reservoir) than in Choccolocco Creek below the outfall.

2) We continue to find deformed, sick and lethargic fishes in our collections, particularly at Stations 7, 8, and 10. Since the residue levels are highest at these stations it is apparent to us that there is a cause and effect relationship." [Bio Consultants to J.T. Bell; June 9, 1972]

Thirty Years of Secrets

It wasn't until late summer of 1993 that the residents of Anniston learned of the high levels of PCBs in local fish. A contractor, now deceased, had found deformed fish in Choccolocco Creek and had tested the fish for PCBs. The results, given by the contractor to regulators, showed enough contamination to prompt an investigation by the State. On November 2, 1993 the Alabama Department of Public Heath issued the first fish consumption advisory officially warning residents not to eat fish caught from Choccolocco Creek.

Contrary to Monsanto's recent claims about having acted responsibly and quickly once they found out about the contamination, the company's own documents demonstrate a different reality.