The Real Story Behind ‘Dark Waters’

The new film from Todd Haynes focuses on Robert Bilott, an attorney who took on the goliath chemical company DuPont.
Mark Ruffalo Dark Waters
Focus Features
By  · Published on September 22nd, 2019

Lawyers often get a bad rap, but we still need them in the fight for justice. Robert Bilott, on the other hand, is one of the good ones. He’s spent the majority of his professional career taking the fight to corrupt chemical companies and has managed to do some good in that time. His story is also the subject of Dark Waters, the upcoming Todd Haynes movie starring Mark Ruffalo as the environmentally-conscious lawyer and depicting the case that propelled him to fame.

The movie is already being tipped to crash this year’s Oscars and certainly looks like something that will appeal to the Academy. In the meantime, you can check out the trailer below and then read on to learn all about the events that inspired it.

Bilott’s environmental crusade began in 1998 when he was contacted by Wilbur Tennant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, whose cattle had been dying as a result of suspected poisoning. The farmer believed that the chemical company DuPont was responsible for their deaths, but no local lawyers were willing to accept his case because the corporate entity wielded too much influence and power in the town.

At the time, the firm Bilott worked for mainly represented corporate clients and he had almost no interest in taking on the case. However, the farmer knew his grandmother, and the lawyer’s childhood memories of spending time in Parkersburg made him sympathetic toward the townspeople.

Upon accepting the case, Bilott discovered that DuPont had been dumping chemical waste — including an unregulated chemical compound called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — near the site where Tennant was raising the cattle. PFOA wasn’t public knowledge at the time, but during his research, the lawyer was given access to 160,000 DuPont files which revealed that the company had been using the substance since 1951.

The farmer was right: the waste had killed his livestock, and Bilott ensured that he received compensation in the form of an out-of-court settlement. Before Bilott discovered the truth about DuPont’s use of PFOA, however, the company almost won the case.

After selecting their own experts (who conveniently ignored the company’s use of PFOA) to investigate the site, DuPont accused the Tennant family of poor husbandry, which is just another way of saying they were mistreating their cattle. For a while, the accusation stuck and the family was ostracized in their town. Their neighbors refused to talk to them. They had to change churches several times. You get the idea.

During Bilott’s own research, though, he learned that DuPont had been concealing evidence of their actions involving PFOA for decades. This angered the lawyer, and he made it his mission to get justice for the Parkersburg residents whose lives had been affected by the substance.

Over the following months, the lawyer drafted a public brief against DuPont. He demanded measures be taken to regulate PFOA and provide clean water to those living near their factory. In 2001, he sent a letter to the director of every relevant regulatory authority, which caused DuPont to respond by requesting a gag order in a bid to prevent him from disclosing his findings to the government. They were denied.

Bilott was on to DuPont, but his actions had a knock-on effect throughout their entire industry. As the lawyer later discovered, PFOA was only one of more than 60,000 unregulated chemicals that these companies released into the world.

The lawyer’s findings caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, which then demanded $16.5 million — a small fraction of the profits earned by DuPont through PFOA use — be paid by the chemical company for violating the Toxic Substances Control Act. DuPont obliged, but Bilott’s crusade was far from over.

The next step was for Bilott to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the 70,000 people in Parkersburg whose drinking water had been tainted by the chemical substance. DuPont responded by trying to plead with his firm, claiming that it could discourage future clients from working with them. Unfortunately for DuPont, Bilott’s firm stood by their man.

The EPA, drawing from Bilott’s research, also launched their own investigation into PFOA and determined that it posed risks to anyone exposed to it. As such, DuPont paid $70 million as a result of the class-action case and funded scientific research to determine whether there was a direct link between the substance and health problems. Furthermore, the company agreed to pay for medical monitoring of the affected group.

In the end, they found a probable link between drinking PFOA and various illnesses, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, and ulcerative colitis. The personal injury lawsuits that followed — by some 3,500 victims — cost Dupont $671.7 million.

Bilott’s war against DuPont lasted almost 20 years, and while his victories proved to be financially rewarding for many people, his intentions were inspired by moralistic reasoning in an effort to make our planet a better place. His story should make for a very inspirational movie.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.