Widespread Contamination of Chicago River Leads to Monsanto Lawsuit
Protecting the full scope of our surrounding environment is critical, but aquatic ecosystems are especially important. After all, it’s no coincidence that the first human civilizations formed on riverbanks. No matter how far we advance as a species, life cannot survive without water. Today, local bodies of water are a valuable source of food, recreation, tourism, and drinking water. And our coastal communities are particularly responsible for protecting and helping these natural resources thrive.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares this sentiment. Too many of our planet’s oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds suffer from contamination and invasive species, making them inhospitable and sometimes dangerous for local plants, animals, and people. Dozens of American cities suffer from unsafe drinking water. Infamously, residents of Flint, Michigan, experienced a major public health crisis due to lead-contaminated water — despite public officials knowing there was an issue.
Another midwestern city is facing a battle over its water quality, and it will hopefully have a happier, or at least more accountable ending. The City of Chicago is suing major agrochemical company Monsanto for knowingly contaminating the Chicago River, a 156-mile-long waterway that runs through the Windy City’s downtown. A beloved Chicago feature, residents and visitors use the river for recreation (like kayaking) and even fishing from the popular riverwalk. However, this valuable natural resource is in danger. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has identified alarming concentrations of toxic substances (polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs) in Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.
What Are PCBs?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no natural sources of PCBs exist. The manufacturing industry is responsible for PCBs in the environment. People employed these artificial chemical compounds in household wares, industrial products, and other implementations in the early twentieth century. However, despite its many uses, the U.S. ended PCB production in 1977 after studies demonstrated its toxic effects. Unfortunately, PCB consequences remain regardless of the ban, especially in and around waterways and surrounding communities. Research shows a close link between PCB exposure and neurological damage in newborns and high rates of cancer within exposed populations.
What is Chicago’s Case?
The Monsanto Corporation was the only U.S. PCB producer from the 1930s through 1977. As such, it’s pretty easy to point the finger at the chemical giant for Chicago’s lingering contamination. In the Monsanto lawsuit, the City of Chicago alleges that the company knowingly discharged these toxic chemicals into the nearby environment by nature of its PCB manufacturing process. The Chicago River likely became contaminated due to stormwater runoff — heavy precipitation and melting snow leech through the ground, exposing it to lingering PCBs in the soil before ultimately entering the nearby waterways. Wildlife, notably fish in the Chicago River, pose severe risks to those who consume them.
Monsanto undeniably caused the problem, but that’s not where the city’s case ends. Chicago’s lawsuit attests that Monsanto knew about the long-term contamination and health risks years before the 1970s ban; evidence suggests that the chemical manufacturer knowingly misled the public regarding PCB hazards. Bottom line: Monsanto, not the city of Chicago, should be responsible for the mess.
What is Monsanto Saying?
Despite similar ongoing lawsuits in Massachusetts, Washington, and Vermont, Monsanto isn’t backing down. The company calls the Chicago case meritless, instead pointing the finger at third-party companies (though whether or not these companies have affiliations with Monsanto is ambiguous). Monsanto also blames Chicago for the widespread river contamination, noting the city’s 200+ sewage outfalls discharging into the watershed.
The company’s shifting corporate ownership makes the blame game that much harder. In 2018, the European pharmaceutical company Bayer acquired Monsanto. Monsanto’s former chemical business is now Eastman Chemical. And Pfizer absorbed Monsanto’s drug business in the early 2000s. Tracking down the company’s key decision-makers throughout the Monsanto lawsuit’s timeline becomes exceedingly complex, especially when dealing with decades-old materials.
Chicago v. Monsanto: Who Will Win?
Despite the defense’s arguments and the confusing cast of corporate “bad guys,” several states have succeeded with similar allegations. In 2022, Oregon received $700 million from Monsanto for the company’s alleged PCB pollution. Additionally, in the past several years, the biotech company has paid billions to settle accusations related to another of its harmful chemicals (the weedkiller Roundup). While it’s unlikely that Monsanto will admit fault in Chicago’s case, recent history suggests a strong chance that money will exchange hands. And, since Chicago is now responsible for a massive environmental cleanup, the city will likely demand as much compensation as possible.
What Can People Do About PCBs in the Environment?
The PCB Monsanto Chicago lawsuit is a huge undertaking that may take years to settle. In the meantime, there’s not much people can do about removing PCBs from the environment, but there are steps we can take to help mitigate their transmission into nearby waterways. Rain gardens and similar stormwater reduction projects can significantly impact contamination through runoff. Individuals should also be mindful of PCB-contaminated areas and avoid consuming animal products (like fish) from high-risk locations. Finally, old building materials, like fluorescent lights, should undergo testing for PCBs and be replaced when necessary.
Evee Life can help update you on the Monsanto PCB lawsuit and other big environmental news stories. Join the Charge! For more ideas and to subscribe to our newsletter, sign up at eveelife.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
By evee Life Contributor
Published December 1, 2023 5:16PM
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