There’s the old Monsanto, the corporate behemoth that trashed the environment with chemicals, then lied about the danger; and the new Monsanto, the one riding on a white charger to the rescue of the world’s hungry with Roundup ready seeds.
And there’s no connection between the two.
In fact, the old Monsanto was renamed Solutia and all of the old corporation’s sins have been transferred onto Solutia’s books, including a still accumulating backlog of lawsuits. The latest incarnation of Monsanto, though, shriven of some fifty-plus EPA Superfund sites, barely refers to its first 100 years in its literature and lists instead its accomplishments since the corporate reorganization in 2002.
But while its officers enjoy selective memory loss, citizens in many locales are still living with the depredation the old Monsanto caused.
From 1929-1971, for example, one of its plants in Anniston, Alabama produced PCBs as a byproduct of manufacturing lubricants, hydraulic fluids and sealants. Those PCBs–though the plant workers and townspeople didn’t know it at the time–can adversely affect liver function as well as several of our systems, namely neurological, reproductive, immune and endocrine. And that’s just the effects on humans. It doesn’t do the environment much good either.
People in Anniston find themselves in this fix today largely because of the way Monsanto disposed of PCB waste for decades. Excess PCBs were dumped in a nearby open-pit landfill or allowed to flow off the property with storm water. Some waste was poured directly into Snow Creek, which runs alongside the plant and empties into a larger stream, Choccolocco Creek. PCBs also turned up in private lawns after the company invited Anniston residents to use soil from the plant for their lawns, according to The Anniston Star.
So for decades the people of Anniston breathed air, planted gardens, drank from wells, fished in rivers, and swam in creeks contaminated with PCBs-without knowing anything about the danger. It wasn’t until the 1990s-20 years after Monsanto stopped making PCBs in Anniston-that widespread public awareness of the problem there took hold.
Studies by health authorities consistently found elevated levels of PCBs in houses, yards, streams, fields, fish, and other wildlife-and in people. In 2003, Monsanto and Solutia entered into a consent decree with the E.P.A. to clean up Anniston. Scores of houses and small businesses were to be razed, tons of contaminated soil dug up and carted off, and streambeds scooped of toxic residue. The cleanup is under way, and it will take years, but some doubt it will ever be completed-the job is massive. To settle residents’ claims, Monsanto has also paid $550 million to 21,000 Anniston residents exposed to PCBs, but many of them continue to live with PCBs in their bodies. Once PCB is absorbed into human tissue, there it forever remains.
Naturally, Monsanto was loath to admit that it knew before 1971 the dangers to which it was exposing the countryside and the residents of Anniston. But it could hardly have failed to know.
The evidence that Monsanto refused to face questions about their toxicity is quite clear. In 1956 the company tried to sell the navy a hydraulic fluid for its submarines called Pydraul 150, which contained PCBs. Monsanto supplied the navy with test results for the product. But the navy decided to run its own tests. Afterward, navy officials informed Monsanto that they wouldn’t be buying the product. “Applications of Pydraul 150 caused death in all of the rabbits tested” and indicated “definite liver damage,” navy officials told Monsanto, according to an internal Monsanto memo divulged in the course of a court proceeding. “No matter how we discussed the situation,” complained Monsanto’s medical director, R. Emmet Kelly, “it was impossible to change their thinking that Pydraul 150 is just too toxic for use in submarines.”
Ten years later, a biologist conducting studies for Monsanto in streams near the Anniston plant got quick results when he submerged his test fish. As he reported to Monsanto, according to The Washington Post, “All 25 fish lost equilibrium and turned on their sides in 10 seconds and all were dead in 3½ minutes.”
As soon as the Food and Drug Administration caught on, in 1970, to what was happening in Anniston, Monsanto official Paul Hodges issued an internal memo titled: “confidential-f.y.i. and destroy” that outlined the plan for quashing the story. That plan called for the Secretary of the Alabama Water Commission to keep the story under wraps. When that didn’t work, when the story leaked out anyway, the company–with the help of the Water Commission Secretary–convinced a local reporter to write that the danger was recent and that Monsanto would correct the problem quickly. The newspaper story reassured residents that there was no cause for public alarm.
Oh really? 39 years hence, the environment in that part of the country is still toxic. With that sort of history at its back, no wonder the officials of the new Monsanto have become amnesiac.