What Monsanto Knew
Early in 1970, we established a target of 10 ppb [parts per billion] of PCBs in our plant waste streams which we expected to achieve by the third quarter 1971. No specific target was established for the quantity of PCBs we could tolerate in the atmosphere. During the year as the plant gained tighter control of known sources of PCB pollution, it became increasingly obvious that the high levels would continue because of the PCBs trapped in the soil and in the sewer systems. Clean-up of these sources can be economically impractical.
--Former Monsanto plant manager, January 1971
Adam Peck, one of Monsanto's lawyers, isn't sweating it. The company, which spun off its chemical division as a stand-alone firm, Solutia, in 1997, assigned an environmental manager to lead a $30 million cleanup focusing on everything from a landfill where 150-200 million pounds of PCB waste are buried to waterways and contaminated land in the neighborhood. Beginning with the Mars Hill church, the company began buying out small businesses and residents in West Anniston. They bulldozed buildings, laid thick plastic tarps over the contaminated soil and covered them with clean soil. The company plans to convert some of the contaminated land into a wildlife refuge. It has built perching posts near the landfill to attract purple martins, and recently released salamanders into a pond that catches runoff water from the landfill.
In Peck's mind, these activities demonstrate convincingly that the corporation has behaved responsibly. "Our position is that when a jury hears all the evidence they will conclude that Monsanto and Solutia acted responsibly in the manufacture of PCBs and in efforts to remediate," he says. "I think liability will be for a jury to determine. We have offered to acquire property. We've offered to clean property. What does that mean? Does that mean we acted responsibly or that we should have done more?" After a pause, he adds, "I'm not sure what more we could have done."
Peck says Monsanto didn't notify the community about the PCB releases years ago because at the time there wasn't sufficient understanding of how the chemicals migrated through the environment. Yet one of the documents Stewart obtained, a sample Q&A on PCBs produced by Monsanto for its customers in 1972, reads in part: "PCB is a persistent chemical which builds up in the environment. It, therefore, should not be allowed to escape to the environment." Peck continues: "And if you think about it from the perspective of the plant manager and the folks who were there at the time, the levels that were escaping the plant were extremely small compared to the levels that those guys were working with on a daily basis. They weren't worried for their own health. Why should they be thinking the minute levels that are escaping are of any concern to anybody outside there?" The protective gear worn by workers, Peck insists, was simply routine.
Ryan McFarlane is lumbering across the dirt lot outside his trailer. Overweight and easily winded, he moves slowly past a broken trampoline to a set of wire pens that house his chickens. Undersized and lethargic, they huddle in the corners of the rusty pens, occasionally exhaling a thin cluck. For years, Ryan raised chickens for food. But these days, knowing they are probably contaminated, and since his health problems have kept him from working for the past five years, Ryan keeps chickens around to give him something to do.
Until the PCB contamination came to light, the McFarlanes, like many of their friends and former neighbors, regularly ate fish from the creeks, and chicken and vegetables raised in their yards. They might have given the practice up long before if Monsanto had told Jeremiah Smith in 1970 when it bought his hogs that it made the purchase because it was worried that people were eating PCB-contaminated pork. (Monsanto admits that the hogs were later shot and buried, although the company contends that its concern about PCB contamination was secondary to its concern about the hogs' trespassing on its property.) The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, completed a health study in Anniston in February, which found that PCB exposure in the town is a public health hazard. It also suggested that eating local pork, fish and chicken has been a major source of PCB contamination. The EPA says eating PCB-contaminated food is one of the most dangerous means of exposure because PCBs biomagnify, or increase in intensity, as they travel up the food chain.
Residents are anxiously awaiting the EPA's decision on whether to order a federal cleanup. "All they want to do, seem like, is study, study, study, we got to study some more," says one plaintiff in the case. The lawsuit is also taking longer than residents anticipated. Two weeks before the case was to go to trial, in March 1999, Monsanto appealed to the state Supreme Court to establish procedural rules for the circuit court. Now, more than a year later, the Court still hasn't returned its rulings. In the meantime, Stewart prepares for trial and works on other cases. He's hoping the jury will award compensatory damages for the property contamination and punitive damages for the fear the exposure has engendered. He also wants Monsanto to pay for regular health screenings. Early settlement talks went nowhere, both sides say.
Monsanto did settle the original suit on behalf of the Mars Hill congregation. It made no admission of guilt but paid $2.5 million to rebuild the church at another location. "In the Mars Hill case they protested all the time that they didn't do a thing," Stewart says. "Then they paid $2.5 million for a church they said was worth $400,000. Sounds like they did something, to me. Now, I'm just a small-town country lawyer, but I wonder how they arrived at that decision."