Money from Spokane's Monsanto lawsuit will be small compared to what the city's already spent tackling toxins, but it could help with more cleanup

click to enlarge Money from Spokane's Monsanto lawsuit will be small compared to what the city's already spent tackling toxins, but it could help with more cleanup
Samantha Wohlfeil photo
A 2.4 million gallon stormwater tank under construction in 2017, now under a plaza near Brick West Brewing Co.

Spokane has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars tackling pollution in the Spokane River watershed in recent years, but a new settlement with the international corporation behind one of the worst contaminants could add several million dollars to the pot for water cleanup.

The toxins called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are believed to cause reproductive issues and increased cancer risks, were produced by chemical manufacturer Monsanto until the 1970s. The company understood the health impacts on fish and birds well before Congress banned the chemicals, but it prioritized profits, according to internal company documents obtained through lawsuits. Now, the persistent chemicals, which were regularly used in machinery lubricant and paints, are still found in stormwater runoff that goes into the Spokane River, making its fish inedible.

With a settlement that could include more than 2,500 cities and jurisdictions, Spokane stands to gain more than most.

SPOKANE'S SPECIAL STATUS

With a final settlement approved Nov. 19, a federal judge in California decided that Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) has to pay a total of $537.5 million to the many places around the country impacted by PCB pollution.

Because Spokane is one of a dozen named plaintiffs in the class-action settlement, the city estimates it will get several million dollars, and potentially more after applying for money from a $107 million "special needs" fund within the settlement, says Marlene Feist, Spokane's public works director.

"Our case was the farthest along in the process when we reached a settlement," Feist says. "We delivered about a million pages of discovery as part of this project."

By comparison, many less-impacted cities not named as plaintiffs may only get settlements in the tens of thousands of dollars, as the general "monitoring fund" within the agreement is only about $42.9 million.

WHAT WE'LL GET VS. WE'VE SPENT

The city will likely get its several million dollars from a $250 million fund within the settlement for communities that have chemical limits known as a "total maximum daily load" or similar restrictions, such as the ones for the Spokane River.

The settlement may help the city pay for continued upgrades at the wastewater treatment plant and projects such as the $4 million Cochran Basin infiltration pond construction that's already underway. That's one of several Cochran Basin projects that will address the 350 million to 500 million gallons of stormwater that come from north Spokane each year, Feist says.

Even with the victory, several million dollars is still a relatively small amount compared to what the city has already spent on improvements to tackle PCBs, Feist says.

Between installing a membrane system known as "next level of treatment" at the wastewater treatment plant (about $126 million), making other treatment plant upgrades (a new chemical building and primary clarifier) and building massive underground combined sewer overflow tanks in recent years (about $190 million), the city has easily spent more than $350 million to tackle contaminants, Feist says.

The combined sewer overflow tanks help prevent untreated stormwater from running directly into the river when there is heavy rain or snow overloading the city's pipes.

Meanwhile, the membrane treatment adds another layer to prevent microscopic contaminants from entering the river through the outflow of treated water. Spokane's use is among the largest applications of the technology for wastewater — it is more commonly used to treat drinking water in areas that rely on rivers and lakes instead of aquifers, Feist says.

THE PAYOUT

Because parties have until mid-December to say they want in on the settlement, and then an appointed special master will divvy up the funds within the $537.5 million total, it will likely be several months before the city sees any of the cash.

Spokane Valley and Spokane County are also likely to get money from the settlement, Feist says.

"This is about communities getting some control back," Feist says. "We didn't make it, we didn't use it, we didn't do something specifically with PCBs, but then we became responsible for it. ... What's comforting is that someone recognized that this was out of our control and other people have responsibility here." ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...