The Baltimore County Council is expected to vote Monday night on whether it will sue Monsanto Company for contaminating the county’s environment with Polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs.
WYPR’s Baltimore County reporter John Lee and Morning Edition host Nathan Sterner hashed out the details.
Sterner: How extensive is the contamination in the county?
Lee: According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, multiple rivers and streams in the county have PCBs in them, including:
- Gwynn Falls
- Jones Falls
- Lake Roland
- Middle River
- Back River
- Bird River
- Gunpowder River
- Bear Creek
- Seneca Creek
PCBs were used in all kinds of things like plastics, paint, adhesives and fluorescent lighting. They have been banned since the 70s. But they hang around in sediment. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs can cause all kinds of health problems including cancer, skin and eye conditions, immune system suppression and decreased birth weight.
At a hearing last week, council member Cathy Bevins, who represents portions of Eastern Baltimore County, was clearly stunned when she heard about the widespread contamination, particularly when she was told that fish and shellfish contaminated with PCBs pose a health risk to people who eat them.
Bevins: “I’ve never been notified to notify my constituency about not consuming fish or crabs from the waterways that we represent and live on, ever.”
Lee: The Maryland Department of the Environment has an interactive map that details what waterways are contaminated and which fish you can safely eat, or not, from those rivers and creeks.
Sterner: This sounds like an expensive cleanup for the county so I assume that’s why it’s considering suing Monsanto?
Lee: Exactly right. County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers told the council the cleanup is going to be costly although she did not put a dollar figure on it. Other localities, including Baltimore City are suing Monsanto, so Rogers says they want to get in line for any financial award that may be coming in the future.
Attorney Viola Vetter is with the law firm Grant and Eisenhofer, one of three firms that would sue Monsanto and two corporate affiliates on behalf of the county if the council green lights it Monday night. She told the council that Monsanto for years knew about the dangers of PCBs back when it was using them and did nothing about it. Vetter said they can be cleaned up, and Monsanto should have to help pay for that.
Vetter: “These sorts of lawsuits are aimed at holding the ultimate responsible party responsible, the manufacturer of these chemicals responsible.”
Lee: Council was told the three law firms have expertise in this type of litigation and are in fact representing Baltimore City in its suit against Monsanto. And this is one of those deals where the suit won’t cost the county anything. But if there’s an award the law firms will get a slice of it.
Sterner: Does Monsanto have any reaction to the threat of this lawsuit?
Lee: Monsanto was acquired by Bayer last year. In an emailed statement to WYPR, Bayer spokesman Chris Loder said they have no knowledge of what Baltimore County may be considering. His statement went on to say that Monsanto voluntarily stopped producing PCBs more than 40 years ago. He added that remediation is a complex issue that is best dealt with by regulatory agencies since they have the ability to consider the competing issues at stake.