By: Humza Yaqoob, Columnist
Last week, on Oct. 7, the Baltimore County Council voted to sue the agricultural chemical company, Monsanto, for allegedly contaminating local water bodies with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). PCBs are a class of chemicals which have been deemed carcinogenic and harmful to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems of humans and animals by the Environmental Protection Agency.
PCBs were widely sold for us in paints, inks and electrical equipment until they were banned in 1979. Studies conducted by the Maryland Department of the Environment have detected the presence of PCBs in several of the Baltimore area’s water bodies, including Bird River, Gunpowder River, Seneca Creek, Middle River, Back River, the Baltimore Harbor, Bear Creek, Stansbury Pond, Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls, and Lake Roland.
The move by the County Council to sue Monsanto follows a similar lawsuit filed by Baltimore City in February 2019, and a spate of lawsuits filed across the country in recent years. The cleanup process for reducing PCB contamination in local water bodies will be costly. The law firms representing the County in this case will be fronting the costs, and they will be paid by the County if they are awarded damages. The Baltimore Sun and WYPR reported that Chris Loder, a spokesman for Bayer, the company which took over Monsanto last year, stated that remediation is better dealt with by regulatory agencies, and reiterated that it has been over 40 years since the company has produced PCBs.
Of course, the company is just protecting its own interests in avoiding responsibility for covering the cost of cleanup, but their claim that municipal governments should stay out of this issue and yield all responsibility to state or federal regulatory authorities is unsupported. The Baltimore County government has a responsibility to protect the public health of its residents, and in taking action on this issue they are directly addressing preventable harm that is being caused to the local community. Looking at the outcome of previous similar lawsuits in other parts of the country can be informative in determining whether or not local municipalities are capable of holding Monsanto accountable. Many have been unfortunately unsuccessful, with cases in the California cities of San Jose, Berkely, and Oakland being dismissed from court in 2016, for example. The City of San Diego, California has been successful in their suit against Monsanto, as attempts by Monsanto to dismiss the case have failed.
Baltimore County has nothing to lose here – if the County loses the lawsuit, they will not expend any cost in doing so due to the deal they have with law firms representing them. If they win, they will be able to hold Monsanto responsible for cleaning up PCBs in local water bodies. Holding this into consideration, the statements of discouragement made by the company’s spokesperson hold little weight. Pursuing this case is absolutely worthwhile for the County and its residents. A win would help demonstrate that corporations can’t always get away with this kind of environmental contamination.