“Dark Waters”: See The Worst And The Best Of Us In One True Story
If you’re looking for a movie to watch, I highly recommend Dark Waters. Starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, the movie follows an environmental lawyer’s harrowing experience taking Dupont to court over their use of a toxic chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
This post contains spoilers. You may want to watch the movie before reading any further!
A Little Background
Everything began in 1951 in Parkersburg, West Virginia when DuPont bought PFOA from 3M. Dupont called it C8 because it has 8 carbon atoms in its molecule. C8 is extremely stable.
Right from the beginning, 3M instructed DuPont to dispose of PFOA at a chemical waste facility or incinerator. That instruction was ignored. Over the next few decades, DuPont disposed of hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA waste right into the nearby Ohio River and unlined pits.
They also buried thousands of barrels containing the chemical on a farm they purchased from Jim Tennant, an employer of theirs.
PFOA thus entered the water supply of more than 100,000 people living in the area, slowly poisoning them and causing a host of health problems.
It wasn’t that Dupont didn’t know about the dangers of PFOA, they knew.
PFOA is toxic.
In 1961, DuPont’s scientists have already found out about the toxicity of PFOA. It caused enlargement of rats’ livers, testes, adrenal glands, and kidneys.
In 1962, they learned that PFOA exposure had the same effects on dogs.
In the same year, they carried out an experiment on their own workers. They asked volunteers to smoke cigarettes laced with PFOA.
“Nine out of ten people in the highest-dosed group were noticeably ill for an average of nine hours with flu-like symptoms that included chills, backache, fever, and coughing.”
Despite the alarming discoveries, they kept using the chemical.
By 1978, they already knew that PFOA accumulated in employees’ blood and found that exposed workers experienced higher incidences of endocrine disorders and often had an abnormal liver function.
Still, DuPont chose not to alert the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) about PFOA.
In 1979, 3M carried out an experiment on rhesus monkey. They divided the monkeys into 5 groups and exposed them to different levels of PFOA over 90 days. The group who received the highest dose all died within 5 weeks. 3 monkeys from the group receiving less than half the highest dose also died.
DuPont knew about this experiment and its outcome.
Still, DuPont declared that there isn’t conclusive evidence that PFOA harmed employees. They did, however, state that continued exposure was not tolerable.
PFOA causes birth defects.
Two years later, in 1981, 3M shared a study conducted on pregnant rats and found that PFOA exposure increased the incidences of birth defects. So, DuPont tracked its 8 pregnant employees and found two babies born with birth defects in the eye.
DuPont reported the result of the pregnant rat study to EPA, but not the knowledge that female plant workers had babies with birth defects. During a discussion with the agency, they argued that the rat study was flawed.
Back at their plant, DuPont sent out flyers to plant workers notifying them of 3M’s study. When an employer named Sue Bailey saw the flyer, she thought of her baby, Bucky Bailey, who was born with eye defects and only one nostril.
She asked the plant doctor if what happened to her son was due to exposure to PFOA, the plant doctor said no.
In fact, he went on to say there weren’t any records of Sue Bailey ever working at DuPont. Sue Bailey considered suing DuPont, but the lawyer she contacted wasn’t prepared to offend the town’s biggest employer.
PFOA affected communities 79 miles away.
In 1982, Bruce Karrh, DuPont’s then corporate medical director, became concerned about the exposure of the local community to PFOA from emissions leaving the plant.
Two years later, they sent workers to collect water samples from communities around the plant and detected PFOA at elevated levels even in communities 79 miles away.
What DuPont did
DuPont knew that PFOA is toxic to humans and accumulates in the blood. They knew it’s extremely resistant to degradation, yet they disposed of it in rivers and unlined pits, buried barrels of the waste in the area, and even tried to sink PFOA waste into the ocean. They also knew that PFOA has polluted the water sources in communities near the Parkersburg plant.
Still, DuPont decided to keep using PFOA to protect its business and corporate image. In fact, their use and emission of PFOA increased.
According to a study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health in 2007 by Dennis Paustenbach, DuPont’s Parkersburg plant in West Virginia emitted around 2.5 million pounds of PFOA into the surrounding area.
Someone spoke out, and someone took action.
Remember Jim Tennant, the person DuPont bought land from? An unlined landfill was on Jim’s land. DuPont buried their barrels of PFOA there.
Wilbur Tennant was Jim’s brother, and his property bordered the land where the barrels were buried.
Wilbur noticed that his cattle were dying of a mysterious disease. They’d waste away and become deranged, then they’ll die with blood running out of their noses and mouths. In less than two years, he had lost more than 150 cattle.
He connected their deaths to something in the water, and it’s not surprising he did. The water the cattle were drinking from was so polluted it was olive green in some places. Thick foam floated above it. Deers, fishes, and birds in the area were dying too.
He tried to seek help from the authorities to no avail.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant approached Robert Bilott for help. By then, DuPont has already been poisoning Parkersburg residents for decades.
Rob Bilott was an environmental lawyer for corporate companies, but he took the case as a favor to his grandmother. In addition, he thinks he’ll be putting his knowledge to good use — helping those who really needed him most.
What followed was years and years of battle against the rich and powerful DuPont.
He didn’t stop fighting after helping Wilbur Tennant. Instead, he reported DuPont’s wrongdoings to the EPA in a 972 pages long public brief. Then filed a class-action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of everyone whose water was tainted by PFOA.
In 2004, DuPont decided to settle the class-action lawsuit. The settlement included the installation of water filtration systems at affected water districts and a cash reward of $70 million. They also had to fund an epidemiology study to study PFOA and disease correlations.
Rob Bilott and his team decided to use the cash reward to obtain blood tests from the affected 70,000 people who had been drinking contaminated water.
Armed with the blood samples and unlimited funding from DuPont, scientists got to work. However, the study was so large it took them 7 years to process the data and deliver the findings. The scientists found a link between PFOA exposure and testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pre-eclampsia.
Finally, DuPont can’t say that it didn’t do anything wrong to the thousands of people drinking tainted water. And the people, armed with scientific data, can file personal injury lawsuits against DuPont.
One person can initiate a change.
At the end of the movie, I had a revelation. One person can’t always cause a change, but one person can set off a chain of reactions to cause change. And it takes immense courage and conviction to do that.
Wilbur Tennant is one farmer in a community who sees DuPont as something more than an employer. DuPont was almost a benefactor to them, bringing the community jobs, giving their youths opportunities for further education. DuPont was and probably still is, essential to the local economy.
Wilbur Tennant knew what he was up against. DuPont is a large and successful corporation. They make billions every year. They have the money and resources to fight, and the people of Parkersburg on their side.
Even the veterinarians were on DuPont’s side. They claimed that the Tennant cattle were dying of poor management when they were dying from PFOA poisoning.
A lot of people would’ve been resigned to dying from PFOA-fueled cancer as they lose the last of their cattle. Not Wilbur Tennant. He chose to sue DuPont, despite incurring the wrath of his fellow neighbors.
And that brings us to…
I think it’s nothing short of a miracle that the lawyer Wilbur Tennant approached happened to be Rob Bilott. He is the right mixture of heart, intelligence, guts, and tenacity.
By taking on the case, Rob Bilott had a lot to lose. His firm defends corporate companies so what he did was unheard of in the industry.
He essentially risked his career because he knew what DuPont did was wrong. And he risked his health too. The amounts of pressure from his firm and the people he represented took a toll on his body.
And he didn’t even have to do it.
Rob Bilott could’ve helped Tennant and called it a day, but he didn’t stop at that. He fought for Tennant and stayed to fight for the people. And his efforts paid off!
The PFAS Action Plan
On 14 February 2019, the EPA issued a PFAS Action Plan. PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) include man-made chemicals like PFOA, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), GenX chemicals, and other similar chemicals. GenX chemicals are high-performance fluoropolymers created to replace PFOA. They’re already in the water sources in some areas.
The action plan describes EPA’s plans to further research on PFAS, inform the public about PFAS, and address current and future exposures of PFAS to the public and the environment.
The EPA will begin the “the necessary steps to propose designating PFOA and PFOS as ‘hazardous substances’”. A tad too slow, if you ask me, but hey, at least something’s happening!
Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA, they’ve found it. The stability of PFOA meant they’ll remain in the environment for a long time, outlasting generations of humans.
Who knew how long DuPont would’ve kept using and releasing PFOA into the environment had Wilbur Tennant not sued DuPont, and Rob Bilott not taken the case.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
After watching Dark Waters, I wondered if I’d do what my conscience tells me is right if it’s fraught with difficulties. I hope I will.
We all have the potential to be a Wilbur Tennant or Rob Bilott. Not by doing what they did, but by doing what is right even when the odds are against us.
Dark Waters is definitely a movie worth watching, and it’s not just because I adore Mark Ruffalo. From what I’ve read, the movie accurately depicted the events. Watch it, learn about DuPont’s irresponsibility, and a lawyer’s 20-year quest to expose DuPont’s wrongdoings.
I hope you’ll be inspired by Wilbur and Rob’s courage too.
Originally published at https://darkbluejournal.com on May 26, 2020.