Monsanto dumped toxic waste in UK
Inquiry after chemicals found at site 30 years after their disposal (How many such sites remain undiscovered in Ireland.?)
Evidence has emerged that the Monsanto chemical company paid contractors to dump thousands of tonnes of highly toxic waste in British landfill sites, knowing that their chemicals were liable to contaminate wildlife and people. Yesterday the Environment Agency said it had launched an inquiry after the chemicals were found to be polluting underground water supplies and the atmosphere 30 years after they were dumped.
According to the agency it could cost up to £100m to clean up a site in south Wales that has been called "one of the most contaminated" in the country.
A previously unseen government report read by the Guardian shows that 67 chemicals, including Agent Orange derivatives, dioxins and PCBs which could have been made only by Monsanto, are leaking from one unlined porous quarry that was not authorised to take chemical wastes.
The Brofiscin quarry on the edge of the village of Groesfaen, near Cardiff, erupted in 2003, spilling fumes over the surrounding area, but the community has been told little about the real condition of what is in the pit. Yesterday the government was criticised for failing to publish information about the scale and exact nature of this contamination.
Douglas Gowan, a pollution consultant who produced the first official report into the Brofiscin quarry in 1972 after nine cows on a local farm died of poisoning, said: "The authorities have known about the situation for years, but have done nothing. There is evidence of not only negligence and utter incompetence, but cover-up, and the problem has grown unchecked."
Much of the new information about Monsanto's activities in Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s has emerged from court papers filed in the US and previously unseen internal company documents. They show how the company knew from 1965 onwards that the PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls used mainly as flame retardants and insulaters - manufactured in the US and at its plant in Newport, south Wales, under the trade name Aroclor, were accumulating in human milk, rivers, fish and seafood, wildlife and plants.
The documents show that in 1953, company chemists tested the PCB chemicals on rats and found that they killed more than 50% with medium-level
doses. However, it continued to manufacture PCBs and dispose of the wastes in south Wales until 1977, more than a decade after evidence of widespread contamination of humans and the environment was beyond doubt.
A high-level committee within the company was given the task in 1968 of assessing Monsanto's options and reported contamination in human milk, fish, birds and wildlife from around the world, including Britain. "In the case of PCBs the company is faced with a barrage of adverse publicity ... it will be impossible to deny the presence and persistence of Aroclors. The public and legal pressures to eliminate or prevent global contamination are inevitable and probably cannot be contained successfully," the committee reported.
The report, which was shown to only 12 people, said: "The alternatives are [to] say and do nothing; create a smokescreen; immediately discontinue the manufacture of Aroclors; respond responsibly, admitting growing evidence of environmental contamination ..." A scrawled note at the end of the document says: "The Big Question! What do we tell our customers ... try to stay in business or help customer's clean up their use?"
Monsanto stopped producing PCBs in the US in 1971, but the UK government, which knew of the dangers of PCBs in the environment in the 1960s, allowed their production in Wales until 1977.
Yesterday Monsanto, which has split into several corporate entities since 1997, said in a statement: "On behalf of [former parent company] Pharmacia Corp, Monsanto is handling issues related to the historical manufacture of PCBs in Wales. We continue to work with the Wales Department of Environment and other regulatory bodies to resolve these issues. A thorough review ... will show that Pharmacia did inform its contractors of the nature of wastes prior to disposal, and that Pharmacia did not dump wastes from its own vehicles."
Solutia, the spin-off from Monsanto which now owns the Newport site, said it was giving Monsanto and the regulatory agencies "information as requested".
The Environment Agency Wales said it was investigating the contents of the site: "This is one of the most contaminated sites in Wales and it is a priority to remediate because it is so close to habitations," said John Harrison, the agency's manager of the Taff/Ely region. "There is ground water pollution, but we do not think at present there is any danger to human health. We have spent about GBP800,000 so far investigating the tip. Our legal team is gathering all the evidence and we are trying to apportion costs."
Monsanto's toxic legacy
The wasteland: how years of secret chemical dumping left a toxic legacy
Monsanto helped to create one of the most contaminated sites in Britain
The old toxic waste dump at Brofiscin quarry smells of sick when it rains and the small brook that flows from it gushes a vivid orange.
Barton Williams, its owner, says he had no idea exactly what lies below his land, or how dangerous it is. "It's leaking, isn't it? It's the wrong colour. They haven't told me what's in there. The Environment Agency hasn't been open about what's in it at all and the council didn't even tell me it was toxic waste when I bought the land. They only told the public three years ago."
He remembers tankers dumping drums, slurry and sludge from the Monsanto chemical works in Newport and elsewhere in the 36-metre deep quarry on the edge of Groesfaen village near Cardiff. "They just tipped it in, anything really. They were lax in those days."
Groesfaen, now a Cardiff commuter village, is full of recently built GBP250,000 executive homes - some right on the edge of the quarry. Today, the many newcomers know little of the scale or nature of the dumping of carcinogenic and other chemical waste between 1965 and 1972. The tip, which was unlined, never had a licence for chemical dumping and water pollution was forbidden.
The first most people knew that something was wrong was in 2003 when vile smells escaped from the quarry and drifted over the village. The local Rhondda Cynon Taff council warned people to stay away but said there was no immediate health danger.
"People are worried about the value of their properties, they hope it will just go away," said one woman, who asked not to be identified, this week.
Previously unseen Environment Agency documents from 2005 show that almost 30 years after being filled, Brofiscin is one of the most contaminated places in Britain. According to engineering company WS Atkins, in a report prepared for the agency and the local authority in 2005 but never made public, the site contains at least 67 toxic chemicals. Seven PCBs have been identified, along with vinyl chlorides and naphthalene.
The unlined quarry is still leaking, the report says. "Pollution of water has been occurring since the 1970s, the waste and groundwater has been shown to contain significant quantities of poisonous, noxious and polluting material, pollution of ... waters will continue to occur ... the council is of the opinion that the metal drums will continue to deteriorate over time releasing poisonous, noxious and polluting materials," it says.
Villagers are angry that they were not told the exact condition or contents of the tip. "We do not know about this report. If there is still leakage and there is any danger, then it must be cleared up as soon as possible," said a local councillor, Jonathan Huish.
Douglas Gowan, the pollution consultant who first investigated the site between 1967 and 1973 for the National Farmers' Union, after reports of dead cattle and deformed calves in the vicinity, is one of the few people to have
witnessed the landfilling of chemicals at Brofiscin. In 1967 he convened a team of toxicologists and engineers and took soil and water samples for analysis. His reports were sent to the Welsh Office but not acted upon. In a report requested by the Environment Agency of Wales last year, he states: "From 1969 to 1973 [we] actively monitored the site and witnessed not just landfill tipping in regular hours, but also dumping at night. Most of the waste came from Monsanto and I believe that almost all contained some amounts of PCBs. I saw ... vehicles dumping slurry, liquids and tars as well as ... open drums."
Even as Monsanto and other companies were sending chemicals to Brofiscin and a nearby dump, Maendy, from 1965 to 1972, in St Louis, Missouri, company executives were alarmed. From 1965 onwards evidence had been accumulating from around the world of widespread contamination from PCBs and related chemicals. PCBs were being reported in wildlife, human milk, and water, and had been found in British fish in 1967.
Internal company papers show that Monsanto knew about the PCB dangers earlier. Toxicity tests on the effects of two PCBs in 1953 showed that more than 50% of the rats subjected to them died, and all of them showed damage. With experts at the company in no doubt that Monsanto's PCBs were responsible for contamination, the company set up, in 1968, a committee to assess its options. In a paper distributed to only 12 people but which surfaced at a trial of the company in 2002, it admitted "that the evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence as residues in the environment is beyond question ... the public and legal pressures to eliminate them to prevent global contamination are inevitable".
It expected legislation, but papers seen by the Guardian reveal near panic. "The subject is snowballing. Where do we go from here? The alternatives: go out of business; sell the hell out of them as long as we can and do nothing else; try to stay in business; have alternative products", wrote the recipient of one paper.
In 1969 the company wrote a confidential Pollution Abatement Plan which admitted that "the problem involves the entire United States, Canada and sections of Europe, especially the UK and Sweden".
Monsanto's main production centre of PCBs was at Anniston in Alabama, but in 1971 it shifted production largely to Newport. According to the government, the company made 61,500 tonnes of PCBs at Newport. Internal Monsanto documents seen by the Guardian show the Newport factory was leaky and at one point was "losing" 1.7kg (3.7lb) a day of some of the most dangerous PCBs.
Herbert Vodden, a Monsanto physicist who tested how long the PCBs took to break down, told the Guardian that companies employed by Monsanto to take the waste were responsible for its disposal. "The sites were supposed to be impervious and watertight, It was the [waste] contractors' responsibility to find
the sites ... usually they were reasonably cooperative. There were no regulations then. We were in their hands."
Mr Vodden said the company initially lobbied the government to carry on making PCBs in the 1960s. "They were very supportive", he said. And when it decided to pull out of PCB manufacture, "the department of industry argued against us withdrawing them. They came and told us that we should continue".
© The Guardian