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What Monsanto Knew | The Nation

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What Monsanto Knew

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Make the Govt., States and Universities prove their case, but avoid as much confrontation as possible.... We can prove some things are OK at low concentration. Give Monsanto some defense.... We can't defend vs. everything. Some animals or fish or insects will be harmed.... The Dept. of Interior and/or state authorities could monitor plant outfall and find [discharges] of chlorinated biphenyls at...Anniston anytime they choose to do so. This would shut us down depending on what plants or animals they choose to find harmed....
      --Monsanto researcher, September 1969

About the Author

Nancy Beiles
Nancy Beiles, a reporter at Talk magazine, lives in Brooklyn.

At issue in the lawsuit is whether the company was aware of the extent of the PCB contamination and whether it could have protected or warned the community. Many of the answers may be found in the documents.

In the late sixties Monsanto began keeping track of its PCB discharges in an attempt to reduce emissions. According to the company's July 1970 progress report, Monsanto was dumping about sixteen pounds a day of PCB waste into the town's waterways. It was a significant amount, but in the closed world of Monsanto executives, it almost seemed like good news--the year before, the company had been dumping about 250 pounds a day.

Monsanto went on the offensive, reporting to regulators at the now-defunct Alabama Water Improvement Commission that it was finding PCBs in the water near the plant. But the regulators, according to a company memo, agreed that "all written effluent level reports would be held confidential by the technical staff and would not be available to the public unless or until Monsanto released it." Monsanto never did.

To predict whether federal or state regulators would find the chemicals to be a threat to the environment or human health, Monsanto began commissioning animal toxicity studies; the results, in the early seventies, didn't look good. "Our interpretation is that the PCBs are exhibiting a greater degree of toxicity in this study than we had anticipated.... We have additional interim data which will perhaps be more discouraging," a company executive wrote. "We are repeating some of the experiments to confirm or deny the earlier findings and are not distributing the early results at this time."

Testing continued, but the results didn't get any better. In 1975 the lab submitted its findings from a two-year study of PCBs' effects on rats. An early draft of the report said that in some cases, PCBs had caused tumors. George Levinskas, Monsanto's manager for environmental assessment and toxicology, wrote to the lab's director: "May we request that the [PCB] 1254 report be amended to say 'does not appear to be carcinogenic.'"

The final report adopted the company's suggested language and dropped all references to tumors.

Anniston residents got their first glimpse of Monsanto's troubles with PCBs in late 1993. A contractor doing dredging work on the nearby Choccolocco Creek noticed largemouth bass with blistered scales. Tests showed the fish contained extremely high levels of PCBs. Around the same time, the Alabama Power Company broke ground on land it had acquired from Monsanto in the sixties, opening up a PCB landfill that bled black tar. Alabama Power insisted that Monsanto take back the land and reported its discovery to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Testing ordered by ADEM and carried out by Monsanto found that a wide swath of West Anniston and local waterways were highly contaminated with PCBs. Soon after, the company made its quiet buyout offer to the church.

The contamination came as news to residents, but Donald Stewart quickly discovered that Monsanto had known about it for decades. "There have been some big bonanzas," Stewart says of the internal company documents he has collected. "Someone's going to have to sit down somewhere in the bowels of that company and make it right."

Since Stewart had never handled a case like this before, he enlisted the help of a Mississippi firm and Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, a New York firm that represented Liggett in the tobacco suits. Even with all that legal firepower, Stewart still has a formidable task ahead. "It just seems these folks have the skill and the capability to avoid having somebody pin the tail on their donkey. I mean, they've just been able to walk away from it," he says. "I can't wait to get before a jury to say, 'Well, this is what happened.' I'm looking forward to hearing how they're going to explain this away."

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