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In the News: #Monsanto

Earlier this morning, “#Monsanto” has been trending across global news and social media outlets after several headlines broke that the agribusiness chemical manufacturer, infamous for the menagerie of lawsuits and legal matters surrounding its Roundup weed killer and other products, “has agreed to plead guilty to illegally using a banned pesticide on Maui research crops,” according to the US Justice Department. Court documents show Monsanto charged with a misdemeanor count of unlawfully spraying the banned pesticide methyl parathion – a highly toxic organophosphate – on research crops and corn seeds in 2014 at the company’s Maui Valley Farm facility.

Methyl Parathion can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, leading to respiratory difficulties, bleeding, nausea, gastrointestinal and abdominal pain, fatigue, tremors, and muscle contractions. According to Cornell University’s Extension Toxicology Network (EXTOXNET), “high environmental temperatures or exposure of the chemical to visible or UV light may increase its toxicity.” Despite its toxicity, however, methyl parathion is able to naturally degrade within a matter of weeks.

Part of the $10MM prosecution deal Monsanto has to plead guilty to is in regards to the company telling employees to return to the area where the chemical was sprayed 7 days later. The government claims the sprayed area, “should have been blocked off for 31 days.” Of the $10MM deal, $6MM will be paid as a criminal fine and $4MM in payments to government agencies.

In a news release on the guilty plea, US Attorney Nick Hanna said Monsanto’s conduct threatened local communities, the environment, as well as the company’s own employees.

Bayer Vice President of Communications for North America, Darren Wallis, said Monsanto, “did not live up to [its] own standards or the law. We accept responsibility and are deeply sorry…the health and safety of our community, employees, and environment have always been our number one priority.”

If Monsanto is able to meet deal terms within two years, federal charges against the company will be dropped. News of Monsanto’s guilty plea falls on the same day as two other major headlines around the company. Three proposed class-action lawsuits – seeking $500MM in damages – were filed in Canada this past June by lawyers representing a group of citizens diagnosed with cancer they say is linked to exposure to Roundup, Monsanto’s infamous weed killer. Roundup has been cited as the cause of more than 18,000 other lawsuits filed against the company.

Monsanto has expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs in these new Canadian lawsuits, again stating that the health of communities and the environment is a top priority for the company but declaring that it will maintain its stance as a company likewise devoted to the safety of its products. The other headline from Los Angeles, CA on Thursday comes from a federal judge who refused Monsanto’s ask to dismiss a lawsuit seeking compensation to remove PCBs from sewer pipelines and waterways in Los Angeles County.

Monsanto is no stranger to lawsuits from communities along the United States’ Pacific Coast. Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was eventually awarded $78.5MM in 2018 from his lawsuit against Monsanto in which he claimed the use of Roundup as a school groundskeeper led to 2014 diagnoses of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sonoma citizen Edwin Hardeman was awarded over $80MM from a federal California jury this past May after also being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. Hardeman claimed his diagnosis was directly linked to his using Roundup weed killer on his property for over two decades. That same month, an Alameda County Superior Court awarded $2 billion to Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who was diagnosed in 2011 and 2015 respectively with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The couple claimed their diagnoses were also linked to their using Roundup in residential landscaping for roughly 30 years.

Currently, Los Angeles County is seeking Monsanto to be held liable for the removal of PCBs, “from dozens of waterways including the LA River, San Gabriel River and the Dominguez Watershed.” Monsanto originally sought to dismiss the lawsuit claiming the company has never discharged PCBs into the waterways mentioned. The company’s motion claimed the lawsuit was a move to fund projects related to infrastructure in no way connected to the effects of PCBs on human health in and around those communities. A spokesperson for Bayer, who now owns Monsanto as a subsidiary, likewise said the lawsuit in this case against the company holds no merit, claiming none of the defendants mentioned within the suit (which include Solutia and Pharmacia, Inc.) ever stored, produced, handled, or discharged PCBs into the environment of Los Angeles.

Under United States federal CERCLA and TSCA regulations, manufacturers of toxic chemicals including PCBs are held liable for their removal from the environment – a process that often takes years or decades and has cost some companies billions of dollars to conduct. Areas of PCB or other toxic chemical contamination with no liable party are typically proposed to become an Orphan Site if cleanup is to be regulated by the State or to be placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) as part of the federal Superfund program to seek additional funds for future remediation projects.

Lawsuits akin to those currently underway by Los Angeles County against Monsanto, while a necessary step to take, can often decelerate the process and timeline of environmental remediation if regulators and/or communities present evidence that further cleanup initiatives are necessary.

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