The Berkeley City Council has voted unanimously to file a nuisance lawsuit that seeks to hold Monsanto Co. accountable for the cost of cleaning up contamination that the city believes is linked to the company's products.
The council's 6-0 vote on Tuesday means that Berkeley is joining Oakland, San Jose, San Diego and Spokane, Washington, in filing suits against Monsanto, an agricultural biotech company based in St. Louis.
The suit will seek to recover the cost of cleaning up PCBs, synthetic organic chemicals whose full name is polychlorinated biphenyl.
Oakland's suit was filed in November in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the continuing presence of PCBs in Oakland runoff.
The chemicals were used in power transformers, electrical equipment, paints, caulks and other building materials, according to Oakland's city attorney's office. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that PCBs are likely a carcinogen to humans.
Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who led the effort to get the city to file suit, said today that it's possible that Berkeley's suit will be combined with those filed by other cities but he would prefer that it remain separate because "our issues are specific to Berkeley."
Worthington said, "Monsanto's polluting proliferation of PCBs was a corporate crime and restitution for this nefarious nuisance should come from Monsanto's profits, not from the taxpayers' pockets."
Monsanto officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
On its website, Monsanto said PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications from the 1930s to 1970s and because they were non-flammable and provided electrical insulating properties, they were intended to increase the safety of products such as electrical equipment, motor oil, fluorescent light ballasts, cable insulation, caulk and thermal insulation.
Monsanto said many electrical and building codes and insurance companies required PCBs for use in electrical equipment in buildings where the possibility of fire presented a risk to human life.
Monsanto said that after studies determined that PCBs do not readily break down and can remain in the environment, its predecessor company decided to stop manufacturing them. The EPA banned their production in 1979.