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Lawsuit against Monsanto proceeds after mediation fails

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Dec. 30--A class action lawsuit against Monsanto alleging that the company is responsible for contaminated homes and schools near a chemical plant in West Virginia heads toward trial next week after mediation efforts failed.

Residents of Nitro, where a Monsanto plant produced chemicals and herbicides for more than five decades, claim their properties were polluted by dioxins, a highly toxic class of chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases. The plant in Nitro produced, among other compounds, 2,4,5-T, an ingredient in the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, widely used in the Vietnam War. Dioxins are a contaminated byproduct of the manufacturing process.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004, is seeking medical monitoring and regular testing for as many as 80,000 residents. A separate class action also is seeking damages.

Stuart Calwell, the Charleston-based attorney in the class actions, also is representing 200 or so residents of Nitro in personal injury suits, which allege that the dioxins from the Nitro plant led to disease, including cancer.

At least seven lawsuits alleging similar links between Monsanto's plant in Sauget and area residents are pending in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

In 1984, a federal jury found the company was not legally responsible for dioxin poisoning at the Nitro plant but found that dioxin contributed to some of the plaintiffs' health problems.

Monsanto said Thursday afternoon that it could not comment on the litigation because of a court order prohibiting either side from talking with the media without court consent.

Monsanto Co., based in Creve Coeur, has distanced itself from what it refers to as the "original Monsanto" and the environmental legacy of its chemical manufacturing business.

The company once consisted of three core businesses -- agricultural herbicides, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In 2000 the company merged with the pharmaceutical company Pharmacia, and a new Monsanto, based on the agriculture business, was spun off in 2002. The chemical business was spun off as Solutia in 1997, at which point Solutia agreed to absorb the liabilities associated with the chemical business.

Solutia filed for bankruptcy in 2003, later emerging in 2008. In 2008, Monsanto agreed to "assume financial responsibility for certain tort litigation and environmental remediation" related to the chemical business.

Jury selection in the class action will begin Tuesday.

Calwell said in an interview Thursday that the action is designed to monitor residents to catch diseases so they can be treated early.

"This really morphs into a grand exposure experiment," Calwell said. "To see how long it takes to develop disease."

He couldn't be reached later that evening to comment on whether the court had restricted him from speaking on the case.


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