One county and nine cities in the San Francisco Bay region have filed a lawsuit against the Monsanto Corporation in hopes of recuperating costs associated with removing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) chemicals, which were banned in 1979 because of concerns over their impact on environmental and human health.

San Mateo County and the cities filed the lawsuit on April 21 against Monsanto, which was the sole producer of PCBs in the US from the 1930s through 1977. San Mateo County is joined in the lawsuit by the cities of Atherton, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo and Woodside. 

According to a statement released by the San Mateo County Executive Office, the lawsuit was filed in order “To hold Monsanto Corporation accountable for the massive costs they are incurring to remove contamination from their jurisdictions and the San Francisco Bay.” 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regards PCBs as “probable human carcinogens.” PCBs have been associated with many chronic health conditions including several types of cancers. 

Certain areas of the San Francisco Bay are hotspots of PCB contamination that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has advised some people, including children, not to eat certain types of fish caught in the bay, the San Mateo County Executive Office said. 

Bayer AG, which inherited Monsanto’s legal liabilities when it acquired the company in 2018 for $63 billion, reached a preliminary court-approved $550 million settlement to resolve over 2,500 water-contamination claims filed by governmental entities. 

San Mateo County and the nine Bay cities opted out of the class action resolution because they allege that the settlement would have provided an insufficient amount of funds required to comply with regulations to prevent the further spread of PCBs throughout the Bay Area. 

If the County and municipalities were to have signed on to the nationwide settlement, taxpayers in the Bay Area would have been on the hook for a majority of PCB remediation cleanup costs, the San Mateo County release states. 

Echoing similar claims in the nationwide class-action, San Mateo County alleges that “Monsanto has known about the public health and environmental threats caused by PCBs for more than 50 years, and deliberately misled the public, regulators, and even its own customers about those threats so that it could continue to reap massive profits from PCB sales.”

San Mateo County Attorney John Nibbelin stated in the release, “The evidence is clear that Monsanto knew – and hid the truth for decades – about the dangers of PCBs.” 

Nibbelin added, “There’s no reason in the world why our taxpayers should have to pay for the hundreds of millions of dollars we need to spend to prevent further PCB pollution and contamination. That’s Monsanto’s responsibility, and that’s why we’re taking them to court.”

Despite being banned 43 years ago, PCB chemicals may still pose a risk to the environment, wildlife and humans because they do not break down easily. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the amount of time that it takes PCBs to break down depends on their size, structure, and chemical composition. 

“It can take years to remove these chemicals from the environment and that is why they are still present decades after they have been banned,” NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration states. 

In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy refused to purchase one PCB product from Monsanto after tests conducted by the Navy showed that every rabbit exposed to the chemical died. San Mateo County’s Office of the Attorney General alleges that based on company internal documents, Monsanto concealed this information.