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Vermont attorney general files lawsuit against Monsanto over PCB contamination in schools, the environment

James Finley
Monsanto was purchased by Bayer in 2018.

Vermont's attorney general is suing agriculture and chemical giant Monsanto alleging the company that made and sold toxic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, knew they were harmful to human health and the environment. PCBs have been found in some of Vermont's schools and the environment, including Lake Champlain.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in Vermont's Superior Court, the state is seeking compensation for the economic loss tied to that contamination and to clean up both current and future PCB contamination.

"This could be a long fight and there are no guarantees in litigation but we're in it for the long haul, and I take very seriously my role of protecting Vermont and Vermonters," said Attorney General Charity Clark in an interview with Vermont Public. "So my hope is that we are able to hold Monsanto accountable and we are able to recoup money to the state so that these harms can be rectified."

PCBs were banned in the late 1970s, the chemicals, which were used in numerous industrial products for decades, don't easily break down. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to PCBs has been shown to cause cancer in animals as well as negative health effects to the immune, reproductive and endocrine systems. The agency classifies PCBs as "probable human carcinogens."

The complaint says PCBs have been found in "dangerous levels in sediment, in wildlife, and in fish, among other resources" in Vermont, including in 10 sections of Lake Champlain and 7-mile reach of the Hoosic River. Vermont has a fish consumption advisory for all of Lake Champlain and the Hoosic River.

"Lake Champlain is, you know, one of the jewels of Vermont, and it is compromised by PCB contamination," Clark said.

The chemicals have also posed a threat to the state's schools. Under Act 74 passed by the Legislature in 2021, Vermont is currently paying millions to test all schools for PCB contamination. That's after some schools — like Burlington High School — have been found to have high levels of PCBs. Last year, Burlington School District separately sued Monsanto over the contamination.

More from Vermont Public: As PCBs are found in more Vermont schools, the price tag grows for cleanup

Monsanto has been sued over PCB contamination by multiple states, but Vermont is the first to sue over damages to schools, according to Clark.

"I am using the authority of the Office of Attorney General to recover harms done to schools that are traceable to PCBs and that has not been done before," she said.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said the lawsuit has "no merit."

"Monsanto never manufactured, used or disposed of PCBs in Vermont and has not manufactured these products for more than 45 years. The PCB-containing products that are alleged to be the source of any impairment claims were produced by third party companies, not Monsanto," the statement said.

It went on to say any PCBs found at Vermont schools were due to inaction by local school districts and noted Vermont's screening levels for PCBs are lower than federal standards.

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Updated: June 19, 2023 at 5:06 PM EDT
This story was updated with comment from Monsanto.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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