St. Regis tribe, company decline to share the terms of deal ending years-long toxic pollution case
By Chris Hippensteel, Times Union
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has reached a confidential settlement with Monsanto in its years-long industrial contamination lawsuit alleging the former chemical giant was responsible for increased risks of cancer and other diseases in tribal members exposed to PCBs.
The pollution at the center of the case originated at manufacturing sites adjacent to Akwesasne, the sprawling Mohawk tribal lands that straddle the U.S.-Canadian border in northern New York, where toxic chemicals made by Monsanto were disposed of for years.
But the terms of the settlement to end the tribe’s hard-fought lawsuit remain concealed from the public.
“Due to confidentiality considerations, all that I can say is that the parties have reached an agreement to resolve the pending actions but the terms are confidential,” Dale White, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe general counsel, told the Times Union on Thursday.
A statement provided by a spokesperson for Bayer, which absorbed Monsanto in 2018, was identical to White’s comment. Neither White nor Bayer responded to a series of additional questions, including whether the agreement prevents the tribe from disclosing the terms to its members.
In the civil complaint, which was initially brought on behalf of two individual tribe members, the tribe alleged that chemicals made by Monsanto and used in nearby industrial plants had increased members’ likelihood of developing cancer and other conditions. The lawsuit named Monsanto along with a host of related companies as defendants.
The case, filed in Missouri where Monsanto had been headquartered, began in 2018 and dragged on until March — the same month it was slated to go to trial — when the parties tentatively agreed to settle out of court, records show.
The Mohawk territory of Akwesasne is spread along the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River and a collection of islands, divided between New York and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The tribe’s toxic pollution case stems from a trio of plants just upriver of the territory, most notably the now-defunct General Motors plant sitting on its western border.
Over about two decades, those plants dumped toxic industrial chemicals made by Monsanto into the environment, contaminating the soil, water, air and wildlife in and around Akwesasne.
The chemicals, called polychlorinated biphenyls — better known as PCBs — were banned in 1979 over concerns regarding their potential dangers to human health. The EPA has since dubbed them likely human carcinogens and has found they can cause reproductive, hormonal, cognitive and immune system problems.
Researchers have found evidence that Mohawk Tribe members in Akwesasne have been afflicted with many of those adverse health effects, even decades after their initial exposure. In a territory shaped by its rivers, residents can’t eat the fish without risking consumption of dangerous levels of PCBs.
In 2013, General Motors and Alcoa, two of the companies behind the Superfund sites, agreed to pay nearly $20 million to tribal, state and federal authorities to help remediate the damage.
The tribe joined the Monsanto lawsuit in late 2018. In a statement announcing their involvement, tribal leaders alleged that the contamination in Akwesasne was ongoing, and that Monsanto had continued to sell PCB products despite knowing the dangers they posed.
“It is for these reasons that the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe filed the lawsuit — to help the tribe manage the severe and ongoing consequences of its continued exposure to PCBs,” the tribal nation wrote.
The case languished in a Missouri Circuit Court for more than four years as both sides gathered evidence and engaged in pretrial discovery. Company and tribal leaders were deposed, as were a number of expert witnesses, court records show. Monsanto performed environmental sampling in Akwesasne and the tribe requested medical information from members who’d been diagnosed with PCB-linked diseases.
In 2020, Bayer left the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe out of an $820 million settlement to resolve several other Monsanto water contamination cases, a move that the tribe decried as racist but that Bayer chalked up to differences between the lawsuits.
Ten months ago — on the same day the case was slated to go to trial — the judge issued an order stating the two parties had tentatively agreed to settle the litigation.
In July, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and five co-plaintiffs filed to dismiss their case. Another hearing was scheduled for earlier this month.
One of the expert witnesses deposed before the scheduled trial was University at Albany professor David O. Carpenter, a renowned PCB researcher and director of the university’s Institute for Health and the Environment who has frequently testified in PCB pollution cases. When a law firm representing Monsanto filed a Freedom of Information Law request seeking records related to Carpenter’s research and compensation for testifying in those cases, it prompted the university to launch a disciplinary investigation against him, during which Carpenter was quietly placed on “alternate assignment,” and barred for visiting campus.
Carpenter has said he gives the money he receives for testifying in those cases to assist Ph.D. students and to the university for research. UAlbany allowed Carpenter to return to campus after the investigation found no wrongdoing and environmental groups issued calls for his full reinstatement.
A Missouri judge shot down the request by Monsanto’s attorneys last year to reopen pretrial discovery so they could seek files from UAlbany’s disciplinary investigation of Carpenter. The attorneys have continued to pursue those files in a separate case unfolding in state Supreme Court in Albany.
In June 2021, eight months before the law firm filed its request for Carpenter’s records, he had testified in a toxic tort trial in the state of Washington involving PCB contamination at a school 30 miles northeast of Seattle. Dozens of teachers and students there had alleged PCB exposure from contaminants that leaked from fluorescent light fixtures and construction materials had left them with brain damage. His testimony was considered integral to the $185 million judgment leveled against Monsanto in that case on behalf of three teachers.
In December, a jury held that Monsanto should pay $857 million to former students and volunteers in a related case from PCB exposure at that same school in Washington, according to The New York Times.
Monsanto has long been hounded by lawsuits related to the toxicity of its products, which cast a long shadow over Bayer’s troubled acquisition of the company. In 2020, Bayer paid $10 billion to resolve a swath of lawsuits alleging that the weed killer Roundup, which was made by Monsanto, causes cancer. Bayer has said it has reserved another $6 billion to resolve ongoing and future lawsuits.
Photo at top: The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s administration office on the Akwesasne Reservation in Hogansburg, N.Y. The tribe has reached a settlement with Monsanto in a years-long toxic pollution lawsuit, but the terms remain confidential. Lori Van Buren, Times Union