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Lee again sues GE, Monsanto over PCBs in the Housatonic River

 A sign in Lee, Massachusetts, warns people not to eat fish, turtles, ducks and frogs from the Housatonic River because they are contaminated with PCBs.
Nancy Eve Cohen
A sign in Lee, Massachusetts, warns people not to eat fish, turtles, ducks and frogs from the Housatonic River because they are contaminated with PCBs.

The town of Lee, Massachusetts, is suing General Electric, Monsanto and other firms for damages stemming from pollution of the Housatonic River.

Monsanto manufactured PCBs that GE used in its plant upriver from Lee, in Pittsfield. The town claims the companies intentionally harmed the environment and area residents.

The lawsuit, filed in Berkshire Superior Court Thursday, alleges both companies knew decades ago that PCBs could be harmful. The EPA classifies PCBs as "probable human carcinogens."

At the heart of the lawsuit is a 1972 agreement signed by the companies, saying GE was aware of the issues PCBs could cause, and agreed to reimburse Monsanto for any related lawsuits.

GE signed the agreement, kept using PCBs and, at times, dumped them in the Housatonic River when it operated a plant in Pittsfield.

GE used the substance to make electrical transformers from the 1930s into the 1970s. In 1979, Congress banned the manufacturing of PCBS and phased out their use.

“The actions of Monsanto in not removing the product from the marked when it became a certainty the product will harm humans and the environment," the suit reads, "and the actions of GE in continuing to profit from use the product even it caused harm to humans and the environment was an intentional act that could not be justified in any society."

“Intentional harm to humans is a crime whether or not prosecutors decide to prosecute or not to prosecute the actors of the intentional harm," it continued.

General Electric declined comment.

A spokesperson for Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, said in a statement the company had nothing to do with dumping the PCBs in the river and shouldn't be held liable.

“This lawsuit reflects an attempt by the Town of Lee to impose environmental liability on a manufacturer that did not dispose of PCBs in or near the Town and is not a party to a settlement under which the Town agreed to create a PCB disposal site,” the statement said.

The statement points the finger at the town for being unhappy with a previous settlement with GE, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and others over the pollution. In 2020, the company agreed to pay Lenox, Lee, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Sheffield a total of $55 million. The settlement included a cleanup plan which calls for the disposal of some contaminated sediment at a site in Lee.

The deal has roiled some residents and environmental advocates.

“The town is now unhappy with the remediation plan that resulted from its own settlement, and has filed suit against Monsanto, attempting to hold the company liable for the environmental nuisance and trespass created by the Town’s own decisions.,” the statement said.

Lee filed a similar lawsuit last year, but later withdrew it. The new complaint contains details of the 1972 agreement between GE and Monsanto, which Lee said it became aware of in December 2023.

“This is another path toward undoing the injustices perpetrated on the residents of Lee and the Housatonic River Corridor," Select Board Chair, Bob Jones said in a statement. "The abuses of multibillion dollar corporations over decades, the lack of response of our elected representatives, and the ongoing deception in order to keep all of us in the dark must end here.”

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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.
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