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Oregon Department of Justice reaches a settlement with Monsanto for PCB contamination

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, Oregon announced a nearly $700 million settlement with agrochemical company Monsanto. The state filed the lawsuit in 2018 for Monsanto's alleged role in polluting Oregon land and waterways with toxic compounds. Joining us now is Oregon Public Broadcasting environment reporter Cassandra Profita. Welcome to the program.

CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So what is the significance of this settlement for the state of Oregon?

PROFITA: So this is Oregon's biggest lawsuit ever. Oregon's attorney general says it's the biggest settlement Monsanto has agreed to pay in any lawsuit over something called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Today, you know, Monsanto's best known for making weedkiller. But historically, the company manufactured PCBs that went into things like flame retardants, paint and electrical equipment up until about 1977. And then, two years after that, the chemical was banned because it's so toxic. But PCBs are very persistent pollutants, and so they're still polluting the ground, the rivers and the fish in Oregon.

SUMMERS: Has the state said at this point how it plans to spend this settlement money - this record $700 million?

PROFITA: Yeah. So the reason Oregon wants this money is to help pay for the cleanup work of removing PCBs from the environment. It's really expensive, especially when you want to remove it from the bottom of a river. The state actually has to dredge the polluted rivers and then take that polluted material to a hazardous waste disposal site. PCBs are a major contaminant in the state's largest Superfund site, at Portland Harbor, and that's going to cost a billion dollars to clean up. So this money wouldn't even cover all of that cost.

But removing PCBs from the environment is the best way to prevent it from hurting people. PCBs are classified as a toxic substance, and the federal government says it's probably carcinogenic, so it could cause cancer. OPB and ProPublica recently paid to have salmon tested for contaminants and actually found PCBs in the prized fish that so many people eat, especially in tribal communities.

SUMMERS: So what are you hearing from state officials there in Oregon about this settlement?

PROFITA: Well, Oregon's attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, says these contaminants have been polluting land and waterways for more than 90 years, despite the fact that Monsanto knew that PCBs were toxic as early as 1937. And she says the money's going to help with the state's massive task of cleaning up all the pollution to protect Oregonians.

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ELLEN ROSENBLUM: Although it's not enough to completely clean up our state, as a result of today's settlement, we are now in a much better position to do the costly and time-consuming work that must be done to monitor, investigate, clean up and remediate the damage to Oregon from PCBs.

SUMMERS: And so what about the company? What is Monsanto saying about this lawsuit and the settlement?

PROFITA: So Monsanto is owned by Bayer, which is a multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company. And Bayer actually told its shareholders back in August that it was planning to settle this lawsuit, and that would affect the company's profits for this year. The company also put out a statement today that says its agreement with Oregon does not include any admission of wrongdoing. The company filed a lawsuit of its own against the customers who bought PCBs from Monsanto in order to recover its litigation costs. And the company says that the settlement terms here reflect unique circumstances in Oregon's legal system.

You know, that said, it's also settled lawsuits over PCBs in the states of Washington, Ohio, Washington, D.C., New Hampshire and New Mexico. But Monsanto points out that it did win a case over PCBs in Delaware earlier this year, and the company says it plans to defend itself against future cases elsewhere.

SUMMERS: That's Cassandra Profita with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thank you so much.

PROFITA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.