Families sue school, state, Monsanto over chemical pollution
MONROE, Wash. -- Families who say they were sickened at a school in Monroe have filed a lawsuit against local officials and agrochemical giant Monsanto, claiming they allowed the school site to grow toxic with the use of the now-banned industrial chemicals known as PCBs.
The parents and children say their health deteriorated while the students attended Sky Valley Education Center, an alternative K-12 school. The program moved into the buildings in 2011.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court.
The 36 people suing have reported suffering ailments like bloody noses and severe headaches that disappeared when school was out, and long-term thyroid, gastrointestinal and skin problems, among other health problems. They also claim that other teachers, children and parents not represented in the lawsuit developed cancers that in some cases lead to their deaths.
"We were in a safe place and they moved us in a toxic environment and it has forever changed many people’s lives," said plaintiff Jill Savery, who claims her two children were exposed. "People need to know that we were in an environment unknowingly that hurt our children, hurt our teachers, and continue. It’s not okay. And it has to stop."
"The school buildings were known to be contaminated by PCBs. Despite this knowledge, the Monroe School District chose to place the Sky Valley Education program into the buildings. They chose this to save money," said Sean Gamble, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.
The Monroe School District rejected the claim that officials were negligent in maintaining and inspecting the property, saying that it has "aggressively and proactively" worked to clean up possible pollution since air quality concerns were first raised during the 2013-2014 school year.
Patricia Buchanan, the district's attorney, said in an email that officials consulted with experts, tested and cleaned all potentially effected fixtures and replaced and retrofitted parts of the buildings. Buchanan also said that recent testing showed no detectable levels of PCBs.
Buchanan sent this letter to Gamble in October saying that the school district was not liable,
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used in industrial and commercial applications. In many schools built or remodeled before 1980, PCBs were used in fluorescent lights, flooring adhesives, paint, ceiling tiles and caulking around doors and windows. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs have been shown to cause a variety of health problems, including cancer in animals as well as effects on the immune, nervous and reproductive systems.
Monsanto said in an email that the case "lacks merit," adding that the company voluntarily stopped making and selling PCBs more than 40 years ago. "At the time Monsanto manufactured PCBs, they were a legal and approved product used in many useful applications."
But the issue has been the subject of environmental pollution lawsuits for years, as the St. Louis-based Monsanto produced PCBs from 1935 until Congress banned them in 1979.
In 2016, Washington became the first state to sue Monsanto over the pervasive pollution. The case is still pending.
Gamble, the attorney who represents the families in this latest lawsuit, said it was a good thing the state, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson, was going after Monsanto, but that his case is also about the state's "apparent lackadaisical" attitude on this issue of school safety.
Stacy Mullen-DeLand, who is a part of the new lawsuit, said she was a part-time Spanish teacher who also spent time at the school between 2011 and 2015 when her two children attended it. She said the family's doctor found they were suffering from chemical poisoning, which the mother blames on the building environment.
"Three months for us to go from feeling perfectly fine in that summer to so sick that I really feared for our lives. Really, truly feared for our lives," she told reporters Wednesday.
Mullen-DeLand also said not enough was done when she and fellow parents and colleagues reported the health problems to school administrators and the health department. She eventually quit her job and moved her children out.
The state of Washington and Snohomish Health District are also named in the lawsuit but declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Right now, a trial is scheduled for late this year, Gamble said.