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Monsanto's Congressional Get Out of Jail Free Card

As the New York Times reported on February 29, federal lawmakers are ready to deal one of our country’s largest corporate polluters a Golden Ticket, a Get of Jail Free card to rival all others. Congress is letting Monsanto, the former manufacturer of over 1 billion pounds of the now banned chemical family of PCBs go scot-free after poisoning American communities for decades.  It is estimated that this gift will potentially save Monsanto billions of dollars in legal judgments and litigation costs.

The sleight of hand was accomplished by including, at the last minute, an escape clause in H.R. 2576, a bill to update the unworkable and ruined Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.  This escape clause is a provision that could shield only one company—the manufacturer of PCBs—Monsanto—from legal liability.  The force and effect of the provision are so significant that it is being called the Monsanto bailout clause.

The provision, found at section 7(c) of H.R. 2576, will probably block PCB lawsuits brought by states, local governments, and citizens. It will stop states from passing their own laws or regulations on PCBs. And it is written so broadly it could even stop states and individuals from suing under negligence, product safety, clean air, and clean water laws for damages related to PCBs.

PCBs are toxic chemicals with a long, ugly history. I have written before on the effects of PCBs on the East Coast, and the devastation they have wrought in small towns and villages along our Hudson River. Our environment is poisoned with Monsanto’s creation. PCBs are believed to cause a number of serious health problems, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers as well as serious neurological disorders in children.

Not long after Monsanto introduced PCBs, the company (and others, whose workers were in daily contact with the chemical) discovered they were probable health hazards, but Monsanto and General Electric, primarily, hid information from the public and regulators. In 2003, thousands of documents detailing Monsanto’s knowledge of the dangers of PCBs were finally made public in EWG’s Chemical Industry Archives. As lawsuits against Monsanto increased dramatically, and Monsanto was faced with the possibility of having to pay damages and the defense costs of litigation, Monsanto apparently turned to Congress.

In June 2015, the House passed H.R. 2576 to update the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Drafts of the House TSCA-reform bill from early in April and May say nothing about PCBs. But when the bill was introduced on May 26 the bailout clause had been inserted, reportedly at the request of Republican lawmakers of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Not surprisingly, according to reports detailing campaign contributions, in 2014 Monsanto contributed money to 10 Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including the Chairman.  The House passed the bill in June. Not content with campaign contributions, soon after passage of the House bill  Monsanto began lobbying on TSCA for the first time. The Senate bill reforming TSCA, S. 697, has a similar clause. That bill passed in December 2015.

The moral of this story? The moral compass gets thrown under the bus of industry at the intersection of corporate influence and governmental (in)action on the environment.  It’s left to public interest environmental groups, citizen activists and others to stand up for our planet, and for all of us.