What Monsanto Knew
Over time, the residents of West Anniston, Alabama, came to believe they had been silently poisoned for decades by Monsanto. Many also believe that if the contamination had occurred in the more affluent (and more heavily white) east side of town, there would have been more scrutiny by the government. The change in attitude was spurred by what at first seemed like a straightforward real estate transaction between Monsanto and a local church.
In December 1995 Donald Stewart, a former state legislator who served briefly in the US Senate, was taking some time off from his legal practice when he received a phone call from a former client, Andrew Bowie. Bowie, a deacon at the Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church, explained that a Monsanto manager had approached him about buying the church. "It doesn't seem like we're going to achieve a satisfactory deal," Bowie told Stewart. "I think we need a lawyer." Stewart agreed to help. "I thought it was a simple case," Stewart says. "And then it just mushroomed."
Stewart soon learned that Monsanto wanted to buy the church's property, which was across the street from its plant, because it had discovered high concentrations of PCBs in the area and was planning a cleanup. After an open meeting at the church, Stewart began fielding a flood of calls from concerned residents, who had a dizzying array of health problems they now attribute to the contamination. The neighborhood around the plant is populated by people with cancer, young women with damaged ovaries, children who are learning-impaired and people whose ailments have been diagnosed as acute toxic syndrome. (Medical studies have shown that PCBs cause liver problems, skin rashes and developmental and reproductive disorders in humans. The EPA says that, according to animal studies, they probably cause cancer.) In addition to the church, which filed its own suit against Monsanto, more than 3,000 Anniston residents who have high levels of PCBs in their blood and on their property have filed suit against the company since 1996, alleging that beginning in the sixties, the company knew it was introducing PCBs into the environment, knew the hazards of doing so, failed to inform the community and tried to conceal what it had done.
Monsanto denies the allegations. While it concedes that much of Anniston is contaminated by PCBs, the company says its chemical discharges were negligible--and maintains that it did not fully understand how PCBs affected the environment at the time they were released. "As soon as we discovered there were PCB discharges from the plant, we began our operations to limit and hopefully eliminate those discharges," says Bob Kaley, director of environmental affairs for Monsanto's now spun-off chemical division. "At the time, there were no federal regulations with regard to PCBs.... Everything was done voluntarily, and there was really almost no understanding of the effect of PCBs on the environment and human health." Kaley adds, "I think as we've moved forward in the past thirty years, there are potentially some effects at high levels in the environment. But we do not believe even today that there are concerns for human health at those environmental levels."
The case is beginning to attract the attention of environmental activists, 150 of whom will be taking a bus tour of the contaminated areas this month. The EPA is currently considering whether to order a federally monitored cleanup, and it may declare the area a Superfund site. The likelihood of that is enhanced by PCBs' number-six spot on the agency's list of toxic substances at contaminated sites.
Monsanto lawyers have had plenty of practice defending against liability, since the company has been named as a co-defendant in dozens of PCB suits across the country. The company's track record in court on this front is excellent; while Monsanto has settled a few suits, it has succeeded in getting the vast majority of complaints--most of which have been brought by companies that purchased the chemicals from Monsanto--thrown out by arguing that these companies knew what they were getting into.
But the Anniston case stands out in the annals of PCB litigation in the extent of damage to property and people it alleges. It is also among the first brought by ordinary citizens rather than sophisticated corporations. And this time Monsanto will have to confront its own paper trail in court. The black binders that the plaintiffs' lawyers have stuffed full of internal memorandums and reports, branded "Hot Documents" and "Hottest Documents" with yellow Post-it notes--many of which have never been seen by the public but which will become public record when the trial begins--make this an especially difficult defense to mount.