Spokane, other governments continue litigation over chemicals linked to pollution, health risks in Spokane River

September 28, 2018

After 40 years of research, investigative reporter and publisher Peter Von Stackelberg said he has noticed one constant when it comes to chemical corporations and the government agencies that regulate them.

“You can’t trust the industry to tell the truth,” he said.

Von Stackelberg has spent years alongside other activists assembling a paper trail connecting to the Monsanto corporation, which produces Round Up and many other chemicals commonly used in industrial agriculture.

During a event on Gonzaga’s campus Thursday, Von Stackelberg and Spokane community leaders focused their discussion on one of the better-known chemicals Monsanto once produced: PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are man-made organic compounds that were banned by Congress in 1979 after they were linked to health issues in both humans and animals.

Spokane, Washington State and many other governments have sued Monsanto, arguing that the company continued to manufacture and sell products containing PCBs even though it was aware of their potentially harmful effects.

Spokeswoman for Spokane Marlene Feist said the city’s suit, which was filed in 2015, is set to go to trial next summer. John Fiske of Baron and Budd, one of the two law firms representing most of the plaintiffs across the nation, said Spokane would likely be one of the first governments to make it to trial.

Von Stackelberg and activist Carol Van Strum compiled more than 100,000 pages of documents, including meeting notes, transcripts, newspaper articles and internal Monsanto communications. He said some of the documents they collected over the years made him lose faith in the U.S. government’s ability to regulate the chemical industry, and hopes that after the Trump administration, those agencies can start anew with a different mindset when it comes to regulating chemical companies.

He said he’s written articles on the topic for years, but the aspect of his work that has produced the most impact is publicizing the documents themselves. He said he’s shared hundreds of thousands of documents with government officials, lawyers and universities to spread copies of the data as far as possible.

PCBs are used in a variety of products, but locally, small amounts of PCBs are found in yellow ink, a product used by Inland Empire Paper Company, which makes newsprint and is a subsidiary of the Cowles Company, which also publishes The Spokesman-Review. The now closed Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp also used the chemical in their production.

Jerry White, a long-time freshwater advocate and Spokane Riverkeeper also spoke at the event and explained that PCB’s can fade over time, but they often can be found in large quantities in sediment or stored in human and animal tissue. Most fish found in the Spokane River, such as trout, are safe to eat occasionally he said, but a few types, such as Largescale Sucker and Carp have large amounts of PCB in their system. He PCB exposure can increase a person’s risk for reproductive issues and cancer.

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