Synopsis: True story of a lawyer taking on a polluting company; a twenty year odyssey.
Reader Advisement: If you like pollution and/or don’t like actor Mark Ruffalo, proceed at your own risk…
Dark Waters tells the true and tragic account of attorney Rob Bilott and his work on behalf of residents (and their livestock) who were poisoned by unregulated chemicals that DuPont dumped into waters and landfills. The company’s own research showed the chemicals to be dangerous. But also…
It’s the tragic -for DuPont- story of a chemical company with approximately 180 billion dollars in assets being made to pay for legions of lawyers and public relations people to get them out of trouble.
DuPont Chemicals’ war on accountability started small. DuPont had a big plant in West Virginia which employed lots of people. But not everyone in the area worked for DuPont. There was a farmer by the name of William Tennant who complained that his cows were dropping like flies. He suspected that the nearby landfill owned by DuPont had poisoned the creek that his cattle drank from. How silly the man was! DuPont said they just dumped things like paper. But for some reason they also bought lots of steel drums to house the “papers.”
But his cows kept dying so the troublesome man complained to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Three of the six panelists were veterinarians hired by DuPont. Good! Now they could protect their good name from the hatefulness of the man who cherished his dumb cows. They concluded it was the farmer’s fault because he didn’t practice adequate fly management. You know what could’ve helped there? Spraying the bejesus out of every inch of cow and land with insecticide!
One day, the farmer with the fly-attracting cows went to see a lawyer named Rob Bilott in Cincinnati, Ohio. The lawyer’s grandma from West Virginia knew the farmer and said, Maybe my grandson can help you. DuPont doesn’t like grandmas who don’t mind their own business.
You know who else doesn’t mind their own business? Mark Ruffalo. The actor is involved in all sorts of busybody activism to “protect the Land.” Doesn’t he understand? Only Science backed by corporations – and maybe God- can make something that lasts forever. Things like “forever chemicals” that your body can’t break down and can encourage new life. Like tumors, for example.
As if Ruffalo’s own real life antics on behalf of “Nature” aren’t bad enough, he also apparently likes to play other activists as well. This time it’s Rob Bilott. Before law school, this Rob Bilott guy went to New College, America’s premier hippie college, so it is no surprise that he doesn’t accept plutocratic precepts. Instead he actually goes to see this bellyaching Tennant at his farm in West Virginia. The Ruffalo-lawyer sees a huge graveyard for cow carcasses and frozen, enlarged mutated cow organs in the farmer’s freezer. Maybe there is something to this, thinks the anti-establishment hippie.
He drives back to Cincinnati where he lives in a big house because he works for a fancy law firm that advises chemical companies on how to comply with Superfund regulations that they are forced to follow. He has a nice placid wife played by Anne Hathaway. She is also a lawyer, but she is busy caring for their baby, so when they go to work-related dinner functions, she instantly becomes invisible to the VIPs to whom she is introduced as a lawyer and stay at home mom. At one of these events, the Ruffalo-lawyer asks a DuPont lawyer he’s acquainted with for some info on the West Virginia landfill. At first the man is all jovial about it, but later in the movie he rails against the pesky attorney for daring to question the Almighty DuPont. As he should!
The Dupont man soon punishes the Ruffalo-lawyer. You want more documents for discovery? You got it! And he sends truckloads of about a million pounds of documents to his law firm. Take that! Even though it is a fancy firm, there is no one to help go through the paperwork. We see the lawyer open a box dated 1955. That is a long time ago. The Ruffalo-lawyer probably doesn’t care that the DuPont company was founded in 1802 as a gunpowder mill. Or that they make all sorts of products with cool names like Nylon, Kevlar, Rayon and Corian. Another space age-type material is the 1938 invention of Teflon. It is a nice slippery insulator for wiring, catheters and pans. In the old Teflon pan ads they are marketed as Happy Pans. Isn’t that cute? But spoilsport Tree Huggers don’t like the pan that can make a great no-stick omelette because they say the chemicals will make you “sick.” Why that jerk lawyer even claims that the same chemicals are an imminent public danger or some sort of similar legalese.
Furthermore, the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia (where the plant is located) recognize that DuPont is a good corporate citizen. They knew what they were doing when they welcomed the company. Citizens were assured by local politicos along the lines of “…They’ll bring jobs.. Good jobs! The kind that’ll pay you today and kill you tomorrow. Or after twenty years of accumulated PFOAs in your body.” Yayyy!!!
You probably don’t know what PFOAs are; and you wouldn’t have to know if it weren’t for Mother Nature Crusaders. PFOA is perfluorooctanoic acid and it’s used to make Teflon and burns off during manufacture. Teflon is polytetraflouroethylene (PTFE). Sure. some big study related to all of the lawsuits against DuPont concluded that there was a probable link to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pre-eclampsia. And sure, some people get all worked up about unregulated chemicals like PFOA getting dumped into, say, the Ohio River (which DuPont did) or seeping into their drinking water from “digestion ponds” (which DuPont also did). So it was probably a good idea for the company to conduct studies to see how lab rats fared when dosed with PFOA (tumors). But rats aren’t people and they certainly don’t buy the company’s stain resistant carpet coatings. So, being a good corporate citizen, in 1962 DuPont gave each of forty “volunteers” a Teflon-laced cigarette to smoke. Nine out of ten people experienced flu-like symptoms for about nine hours. So? Everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you.
Dark Waters shows the stress effects on the Ruffalo-lawyer of twenty years of litigation. His hands shake, he has brutal meetings with the managing partner of his law firm and his Anne Hathaway wife has a couple of those scenes where the partner of a do-gooder says things like, “You’re letting this case take over our lives!” or “Did you remember to pick up diapers on the way home? Of course not, because all you think about is that case!”
It’s so awful how the Ruffalo-lawyer goes on to represent other people in the Parkersburg area who claim that they were poisoned by the poisoned drinking water. (Water districts’ contaminated drinking water served about 100,000 people.) At least some of his clients are given their just desserts by their neighbors who scowl at and shun them. If DuPont’s minions are not grateful then maybe the chemical giant will leave and then who will employ them and blacken the teeth of their children with their adulterated drinking water? And these rubes, uh, faithful yokels won’t guess that it is cheaper for DuPont to sponsor Little League teams than to stop manufacturing a profitable substance. Best to vote for the folks who won’t encourage the Feds to write regulations enforcing health and safety measures.
The Ruffalo-lawyer works so hard for “Justice” that he gets very hunched over and he has no time to groom his greying hair. And you might wonder what will happen to that poor farmer and that baby born with birth defects. But don’t forget about the real victim here: Du” What We Want, or We Leave Town” Pont. Think of how many fractions of their profits they had to give up because some loser gets kidney cancer or because some priss wants to drink “clean” water. Or the embarrassment of one measly, decent human being exposing their wanton debasement of the environment and consequent, knowing harm to other human beings.
Fortunately there are a lot more unregulated chemicals out there and chemical companies don’t have to prove their substances are safe before they are sold. And there are only so many exposé movies that that granola-crunching Mark Ruffalo and his flower power pal director Todd Haynes can make.
P.S. For further reading… Rob Bilott’s Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont
New York Times article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich.
Washington Post article, “In Ohio’s ‘Chemical Valley,’ a debate over good jobs and bad health” by Kevin Williams