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In fight against GE dump, Lee sues PCB-manufacturer Monsanto

A lawn sign in Lee, Massachusetts, designed by Reed Anderson of Great Barrington, calls for no local dumps for PCB waste from General Electric.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A lawn sign in Lee, Massachusetts, designed by Reed Anderson of Great Barrington, calls for no local dumps for PCB waste from General Electric.

The town of Lee, Massachusetts, is suing Bayer, the owner of Monsanto, for the contamination of the Housatonic River — a lawsuit the company says is without merit.

The Lee select board announced the lawsuit at its meeting Tuesday night.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on March 30, claims Monsanto knew as early as the 1950s that PCBs are toxic, but continued to profit from selling them to companies like General Electric.

GE used PCBs up until the 1970s at a Pittsfield plant, where it manufactured electrical transformers and contaminated the Housatonic River.

The EPA's river cleanup plan includes building a disposal site in Lee, where the agency says sediment containing lower levels of PCBs would be dumped.

Select Board Chair Sean Regnier said the lawsuit is one of the ways the town is fighting against the disposal site.

"It's really a nuisance complaint about the PCBs that we have been exposed to," Regnier said, "and if the dump gets built we'll continue to be exposed to."

A few years ago, Lee officials took part in negotiations that led to the cleanup agreement, and signed off on the dump. It includes $25 million for the town.

In this legal action against Bayer, Lee is not only suing for damages, but for enough money to pay to move the PCB waste from the disposal site to an out-of-state facility.

In a statement, Bayer said, "[T]here is no legal basis for imposing liability on Monsanto" for selling PCBs legally four decades ago.

Attorney Cristóbal Bonifaz of Conway is representing the town in the lawsuit. In an agreement with the town, Bonifaz agreed to cover the cost of litigation. In exchange, the town of Lee agreed to pay the Bonifaz's law office 25% of the gross amount collected in damages, "not including any attorney's fees awarded by the court or included in a settlement."

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.