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By Lisa M. Campbell, Timothy D. Backstrom, and James V. Aidala

On November 21, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Monsanto Company (Monsanto) in which Monsanto agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of illegally using the pesticide Penncap-M, a methyl parathion product that was cancelled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 27, 2010.  This settlement of several criminal counts by Monsanto followed an investigation by the EPA Criminal Investigation Division.  Under the existing stocks provision in the EPA cancellation order, continued use of Penncap-M became unlawful after December 31, 2013.  In the settlement documents, Monsanto admits that its employees knowingly violated this order by using Penncap-M on July 15, 2014, to treat corn seed research crops at Monsanto’s Valley Farm research facility in Maui, Hawaii. Monsanto also admits that Monsanto employees directed other employees to re-enter the treated site seven days after the July 15, 2014, application, although the re-entry period established for this pesticide prior to its cancellation was 31 days.  Monsanto further admits that it stored stocks of Penncap-M after December 31, 2013, when unused stocks of this product became an acute hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), at several locations in Hawaii without obtaining the required permits.

As part of the settlement, Monsanto agreed to pay a total of $10.2 million in fines and penalties, which includes a maximum fine of $200,000 for illegal use of a cancelled pesticide, $6 million in fines for the hazardous waste violations, and $4 million in community service payments to Hawaii governmental entities for various environmental remediation programs.  Monsanto also agreed to be sentenced to two years of probation.  If Monsanto adheres to all of its obligations under this settlement, at the end of the two-year period of probation, the criminal felony counts for the RCRA hazardous waste violations will be dismissed with prejudice.

Commentary

Although the agreement reached with Monsanto will allow Monsanto to escape any felony convictions, it is clear from the stiff penalties imposed (which include the maximum fine permissible for the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) violation) that EPA considers the violations at issue to be very serious.  Pesticide research facilities often handle dangerous pesticides, and EPA typically affords such research facilities wide latitude to use unregistered active ingredients in small-scale research projects, but Monsanto has admitted that its personnel deliberately violated a FIFRA cancellation order, and did not comply with the restrictions on re-entry that were in place before the product in question was cancelled.  Monsanto also has admitted that it stored stocks of a cancelled pesticide at several sites after they became acute hazardous waste without obtaining the required permits.  The substantial penalties imposed may not seem surprising to some given those admissions.