The City of Spokane, along with 2,500 other public entities, had filed legal action against Monsanto for the cleanup costs related to the damages from polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) pollution that came directly from their products. PCBs are a hazardous waste that comes from electronics, hydraulic fluids, and fluorescent lights that leaches into water systems and can lead to skin damage, gastrointestinal damage, and potentially cancer (McKinney, et al. 2019, 523). Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, decided to settle the lawsuit around three Monsanto products for a total of $11 billion dollars. The City of Spokane is utilizing their $550 million portion of the funds to pay for clean-up efforts, including the recently finished wastewater tertiary treatment system that helps removes PCBs from the waste stream (Hill 2020).
The driving force of these waste products, PCBs, was that humans needed non-flammable, high boiling point, and electrically insulating materials for use in industrial and commercial products like electrical transformers, plasticizers, pigments and dies, and other industrial uses. They were manufactured from 1929 until their ban in 1979 but are highly persistent in the environment and have continued to be in high levels in rivers, wastewater, and other areas where leaks and run-off collect (EPA n.d.). The demand for these products led to a large uptick in the presence of these man-made chemicals because the effectiveness of these toxic materials drove further use of them. A primary issue with PCBs is that they bioaccumulate in animal tissue, so as you move up the food chain, more and more PCBs become detected. As they are released to the environment and make it to the waterways, algae begin to absorb it, which is then in turn eaten by fish, and then humans. Responses to these issues are difficult because they are present in so many different products that are still around and continuing to leach into waterways. A program that incentivizes the collection of products that contained these banned chemicals could help reduce the number of inadvertent PCBs still in the system. This is another example of the tragedy of the commons, where a company profited off a product that created large externality costs to the environment and economy for decades after they were stopped being produced (Meadows 2008, 121). Using rules to punish polluting corporations and incentivize the use of green chemistry can help avoid these kinds of issues in the future as well for other substances (Meadows 2008, 158).
Living in a World of Systems
Systems can rarely be directly controlled, but through design and re-designing, new system behavior can emerge (Meadows 2008, 169). Designing extended producer responsibility systems that internalize external costs can help drive corporate responsibility when it comes to waste. Bans for hazardous chemical production can be used to curb the production of highly hazardous materials entering the environment. Unfortunately, in the Monsanto case, it is too late to change the historical emissions even with financial penalties, however, lessons can be taken from this issue to redesign an effective hazardous waste management system that focuses on feedback policies for these dynamic systems that should be monitored with feedback for the manufacture of damaging chemicals (Meadows 2008, 177-178).
Do you think more polluters should be ordered to pay for the cleanup of issues that their emissions directly created, even if from decades ago? Do you think this helps curb future damaging chemical uses by indicating that there is financial risk to producing these kinds of products?
Author: Logan Callen
EPA. n.d. “Learn About Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) .” EPA.gov. Accessed August 10, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/pcbs/learn-about-polychlorinated-biphenyls-pcbs#what.
Hill, Kip. 2020. “Maker of Roundup Agrees to Pay $648 million to Settle Lawsuits from Spokane, Other Cities Over Water Pollution.” The Spokesman Review. Accessed August 10, 2021. https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2020/jun/24/settlement-announced-in-federal-lawsuit-from-spoka/.
McKinney, Michael L., Robert M. Schoch, Logan Yonavjak, and Grant A. Mincy. 2019. Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Meadows, Donella H. 2008. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. Edited by Diana Wright. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub.