The San Ramon Valley municipalities, along with more than a dozen others in Contra Costa County, are seeking damages against Monsanto for alleged contamination of the San Francisco Bay along with portions of the western Sacramento River Delta starting nearly a century ago.
Danville and San Ramon have joined with Concord, Pleasant Hill, Moraga, Pinole, Brentwood, Clayton, Oakley, Hercules, Martinez, Lafayette, Orinda, Pittsburg, Lafayette, Richmond, San Pablo and the county government this winter in suing Monsanto and its two associated companies, which are facing public nuisance, private nuisance and trespassing allegations in the civil case.
"Our courts provide a level playing field so that local communities like these can take on powerful polluters like Monsanto," said Paul Stephan, of Sher Edling Law Office in San Francisco, which represents the plaintiffs. "This case is an important part of protecting the health and quality of life for residents, businesses, and communities throughout the county."
The suit -- along with several similar ones filed by municipalities across the country -- alleges that Monsanto officials were aware of the threat to human health posed by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for decades prior to a 1976 ban on their use, yet continued to produce and market products with them.
"In 1936, the Halowax Corporation reported severe chloracne (an acne-like skin irritation that can be caused by exposure to PCBs) among many of its workers using chlorinated biphenyls," Sher Elding attorneys said in the lawsuit. "Also, three of Halowax's workers died with symptoms of jaundice. Autopsies showed that two of the three decedents had severe liver damage."
Attorneys go on to allege that the toxic effects pointed to in the study was closely followed by Monsanto, who they note went on to manufacture more than 1.4 million PCBs starting in the 1920s and through 1997.
"Monsanto knew its PCBs were creating a widespread environmental and public health problem," Sher Elding attorneys continued.
Despite this, the complaint alleges that the chemical company did nothing to stop the production and use of PCBs, instead sowing disinformation and confusion around the matter.
"Monsanto's internal communications and public statements were severely inconsistent: even as Monsanto internally acknowledged the pervasive risks posed by its large-scale manufacture, distribution, and sale of PCB," Sher Elding attorneys wrote. " Monsanto minimized or denied those risks in its public statements. For example Monsanto provided false and/or misleading information to federal, state, and local government authorities that were investigating PCBs risks."
"Monsanto provided false and/or misleading information and improper instructions about PCBs, 'including disposal instructions, to its customers, distributors, and salespeople," they added.
Following the ban, municipalities across the area continued to face pollution from the chemical via spills and abandoned areas, leading to additional regulations and costs according to attorneys, as well as issues that continue into the present day.
"During the period it made, promoted, marketed, distributed, and sold PCBs, Monsanto knew that PCBs were dangerous to human health, animal health, and the environment," attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. "Monsanto knew that PCBs' physical attributes magnified those risks and meant they would persist for many decades after PCBs were disposed and/or released into the environment."
"Monsanto knew that PCBs were being disposed and/or released into the environment (including in and near the County, the Municipalities, the Bay, and the Delta Waterways) in massive quantities. Monsanto knew its PCBs were creating a widespread environmental and public health problem," they continued.
With products containing the chemical being dumped throughout the county, attorneys argue that the contamination continues to have a massive impact decades on, with Monsanto being responsible for it.
"PCBs entered the environment from accidental spills and leaks of the chemicals, and from accidental spills and leaks of products containing the chemicals," attorneys wrote. "These spills and leaks were exacerbated by Monsanto's failure to provide adequate warnings and instructions."
Given the interconnectedness of the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta and the extent of the use of the chemical, attorneys allege that the damage throughout the region is widespread, allowing pollution to spread far and wide throughout the waterways.
"Once released, PCBs have cycled and transported within and among land, air, and water in and near the County and the Municipalities," attorneys alleged in the complaint.
Sources of alleged contamination include construction material, fluorescent light ballasts and roadway paint.
With firm regulations in place to address and prevent PCB contamination in the future, attorneys allege that Danville, San Ramon and the other represented municipalities are facing high costs for cleanup and prevention efforts, which the complaint is seeking from Monsanto.
An announcement from Sher Elding on Feb. 3 highlighted the impact of PCB pollution in the region, with portions of the San Francisco Bay being designated as "hot spots" with exceptionally high concentrations of the chemical. PCB contamination is the reason it's advised not to eat skin and fatty tissue from fish caught in the bay, and for children and women ages 18 to 49 being advised to avoid certain species altogether if they're caught in the bay.
The complaint, filed in the Contra Costa County Superior Court on Dec. 21, is the latest to seek damages from Monsanto for its impact on the Bay Area, with Sher Edling also representing the counties of San Mateo and Marin, along with local municipalities, in two other suits against Monsanto. A case management conference is scheduled for May in the Costa Costa County lawsuit, with plaintiffs seeking a jury trial.
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