The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection filed suit Thursday against Monsanto for “extensive damage” caused by PCB contamination, citing “reckless long-term discharge of” polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) statewide and noting pollution from a company facility in Gloucester County on the Delaware River.

State officials allege that Monsanto “knew decades ago that exposure to PCBs was potentially harmful to human and animal health.” The civil suit filed in State Superior Court in Woodbury, seeks unspecified damages.

It alleges that PCBs made by Monsanto “have caused significant, long-term damage to New Jersey’s surface waters, groundwater, soil and air, as well as fish, birds, and other wildlife.”

PCBs are man-made chemical compounds that, before they were banned in the 1970s, were used to make lubricant, caulk, ink, dye, coolants, and industrial equipment including capacitors and transformers.

The lawsuit says 6,000 miles of river, 14,000 acres of lakes, and 400 square miles of bays and estuaries in New Jersey have been damaged by PCB contamination.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which filed the suit, also named Solutia Inc. and Pharmacia LLC as defendants. Officials say the three companies, beginning in the late 1990s, took on parts of the overall business once operated under what the suit dubs “Old Monsanto.”

“Our continuing commitment is to hold polluters and their corporate successors accountable for the kind of reckless, unconscionable conduct we allege in today’s complaint,” acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement. “PCBs contamination has harmed natural resources and threatened the health of humans and wildlife in every corner of New Jersey, from remote rural areas to suburban neighborhoods, to our cities.”

DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said, “We are calling on Monsanto to finally repair this damage and leave our natural resources better than when Monsanto PCBs found them.”

The state is seeking compensation under what’s known as a Natural Resource Damage claim that allows the federal and state governments to recover the cost of damage to the environment.

Nicole Hayes, a spokesperson for Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, said the company is reviewing the lawsuit, and will respond in more detail later. Bayer is not named in the suit, but Hayes said the company believes it “is without merit and the company should not be responsible for the alleged remediation costs.”

‘Misled the public, regulators’

Part of the claim revolves around Monsanto’s former 461-acre Logan Township facility bordered by U.S. Route 130 and the Delaware River in Gloucester County. There, it disposed of waste for nearly two decades into unlined landfills. It also stored waste in lagoons. Storm water from the site continues to flow into the river.

“For decades, Old Monsanto knew that its commercial PCB formulations were highly toxic and would inevitably produce precisely the contamination and human health risks that have occurred,” the suit states. “Yet Old Monsanto misled the public, regulators, and its own customers about these key facts, maintaining that its PCB formulations were safe, were not environmentally hazardous, and did not require any special precautions for use or disposal.”

Monsanto manufactured, marketed, and sold PCBs from 1929 to 1977, mostly under the trade name Aroclor, and was responsible for nearly all PCBs used or sold within the U.S., state officials said.

The DEP said that studies “have shown a correlation between PCBs and liver damage, thyroid problems, skin irritation, susceptibility to respiratory infection and other immune system issues, memory and learning deficits — particularly in infants and children — reproductive problems, and certain cancers.”

PCBs also impact wildlife, including thinning of eggshells and lowering reproduction in birds and turtles.

‘Massive contamination’

The suit alleges Monsanto’s operations and disposal methods in the Bridgeport section of Logan Township resulted in PCB contamination of the Delaware River and Birch Creek.

It alleges that other toxic chemicals — including benzene, chlorobenzene, toluene, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride — also contaminated the water, in violation of several state laws created to control pollution. The EPA has been involved in a cleanup at the site.

Authorities say the company knew of the effects of PCBs as far back as the 1930s and in the 1950s, even advised workers not to eat lunch in the PCB department. They also say the company medical director “openly declared that ‘we know Aroclors are toxic.’”

Further internal company communication in the late 1960s showed that Monsanto officials acknowledged the potential for “massive contamination” by PCBs in New Jersey and elsewhere, according to the lawsuit, noting a document that refers to potential for “nearly global” contamination and environmental harms.

However, the suit claims, the document concluded that “there is too much customer/market need and selfishly too much Monsanto profit” to stop making PCBs.

At some point, the suit alleges, Monsanto recommended that customers dispose of PCB waste directly into sewers and vent vapor into the atmosphere. The company sold at least 38 million pounds of PCBs to various customers throughout New Jersey.

A company with a complicated history

Monsanto has a complex corporate history. While it was acquired by Bayer, the two other companies referred to as “Old Monsanto” in the suit have also been purchased by other firms.

Pharmacia, which is named as successor to Old Monsanto in the suit, is owned by Pfizer. And Solutia is owned by Eastman Chemical Co. Representatives for the companies referred any comments to Bayer.

Bayer noted in its most recent annual report that it has been dealing with PCB-related lawsuits and reached a nationwide class action settlement in 2020 with 2,500 municipalities across the U.S. for $650 million, as well as other suits settled with various states.

Suits filed by Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Maryland over PCBs are pending, and a “relatively small number of other states are expected to follow,” the company’s annual report states.

Hayes, the Bayer spokesperson, said PCBs were once legal, and required by building codes and insurance companies, and that Monsanto voluntarily halted manufacturing of the chemical compound in 1977, two years before it was banned by the EPA.