New Film Dark Waters Shines Light on Chemical Pollution History in Ohio River Valley
Dark Waters, the new film starring Mark Ruffalo as attorney Rob Bilott, is set in the Ohio River Valley city of Parkersburg, West Virginia — a place about 150 miles downstream from where Shell is currently building a sprawling plastics manufacturing plant, known as an “ethane cracker,” in Beaver, Pennsylvania.
Ruffalo’s film, directed by Todd Haynes, debuted to critical acclaim, earning a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating of 91 percent, with The Atlantic calling it a “chilling true story of corporate indifference.”
While much of Dark Waters, as the title suggests, centers on contaminated water, the story of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the Teflon-linked chemical at the heart of the film, is also a story about air pollution. And as much as the film looks back to history, DuPont’s pollution — and the company’s decades-long cover-up — may gain new relevance as the chemical industry plans a multi-billion dollar expansion, fed by fracked fossil fuels, along the banks of the Ohio.
The film begins as a detective story set in the 1990s, as Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, begins investigating the bizarre deaths of cattle in a farming region he’d visited as a child. Bilott discovers the chemical culprit’s identity less than an hour into the 2 hour and 7 minute film — and then spends the remainder of the movie pitting his personal tenacity against the DuPont corporation’s deep-pocketed endurance, as even partners at Bilott’s own law firm question his work.
The movie highlights DuPont’s legal maneuvering, showing the company seeking to evade liability by “notifying” customers that the chemical was in their water at levels the notice suggested were “safe” — starting a time clock running for the statute of limitations on DuPont’s liability.
The film’s extended runtime mirrors the duration of Bilott’s real-life legal battles with DuPont, which began as a single civil suit on behalf of farmer Wilbur Tennant but gradually expanded to become one of the largest medical monitoring lawsuits in U.S. history. Real impacted people, including Bucky Bailey and Parkersburg elementary school teacher Joe Kiger and his wife, appear on screen alongside Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, and Tim Robbins, playing themselves in roles that layer an aura of realism onto the tale.
A Chemical History
Beyond the Ohio River Valley, PFOA, which according to a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, can cause cancer, harm to fetuses, immune system issues, and other health problems, has spread rapidly around the world.
First developed in the lab less than a century ago, PFOA can now be found in the bloodstreams of an estimated 99.7 percent of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in wildlife ranging from polar bears to dolphins to bald eagles. Once released, PFOA and the hundreds of other PFAS chemicals like it may take millennia to break down. Tied together by one of nature’s strongest known chemical bonds, the carbon-fluorine bond, the molecule doesn’t naturally degrade from exposure to light or water to break down over time. Instead, it bioaccumulates in the bloodstream, building up and exposing those higher up the food chain to progressively higher levels of the chemical.
Bilott’s class action lawsuit centers on the water contamination from PFOA, which DuPont started using to produce its nonstick coating Teflon at its Parkersburg plant in 1951. His plaintiffs were customers of six water districts along the Ohio River on both the West Virginia and Ohio sides of its banks.
But while DuPont buried drums of the PFOA waste on the banks of the Ohio and otherwise disposed of its waste — in part, long before the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws were written — PFOA itself is also a powdery dust that readily becomes airborne — and the Ohio River is lined on both sides by tall hills that can at times trap air pollution in the valley, where coal and steel towns dot the riverbanks.
Documents obtained by Bilott’s legal team show DuPont slowly realized the dangers that the mix of air pollution and steep hills posed to the surrounding communities. In fact, one DuPont lawyer later privately bemoaned the fact that the company, which had been secretly testing the water for decades, hadn’t checked for PFOA in the air.
“We also learned that not only do we have people drinking our famous surfactant (PFOA), but levels in ambient air above our guidelines, sure we have margins of safety in our number, but we should have checked this years ago and taken steps to remedy, guess the hills on the other side of the river cause great conditions for high ambient levels, the plume hits them before it can disperse more fully,” DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote in an August 9, 2001 email. “Ugh.”
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on August 9, 2001.
PFOA’s ability to become airborne may have helped it spread to some of the furthest reaches of the globe.
“The state of North Carolina has demonstrated atmospheric deposition of PFAS many miles downwind from a manufacturing facility,” the Michigan Department of Environment says in a Q&A on the chemicals. “New Hampshire found contaminated groundwater was caused by atmospheric deposition of PFAS from industrial emissions of PFAS. Additionally, PFAS have been sampled and found in remote regions such as the arctic.”
In 2001, DuPont’s attorney wrote that one scientist was so concerned about the PFOA air pollution in the valley that she suggested residents should wear masks. “Dr. Staats on our call last week seemed determined to assign a large does [sic] to air since that route of exposure is more difficult to deal with (e.g. she said it might require the public to wear ‘gas masks’), of course she is aware of the recent dispersion modeling from the plant,” Reilly wrote on October 7 of that year.
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on October 7, 2001.
DuPont also worked hard to pressure state environmental regulators to move slowly in response to the harms from PFOA — not because the dangers weren’t real, but because the air pollution in the valley hadn’t been accounted for.
“I go to Charleston Monday for a meeting Tuesday with WV regulators, we are also trying to convince them there is no emergency,” Reilly wrote in an October 13, 2001 email. “… [W]e are hoping [an independent agency] would actually agree to higher levels than we have been saying, if for no reason than we are exceeding the levels we say we set as our own guideline, mostly because no one bothered to do the air modeling until now, and our water test has been completely inadequate (until next week).”
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on October 13, 2001.
Chemical Lessons for the Future
With an expanding petrochemical industry eyeing the Ohio as the site for tens of billions of dollars’ worth of new petrochemical and plastic production, some in Parkersburg are wary of the environmental — and political — lessons from PFOA. Ohio and West Virginia have been slower than other states to respond to the pollution, reporter Nicholas Brumfield wrote in a piece published by expatalachians.
“For Parkersburg’s Eric Engle, this inaction [on regulating PFAS in West Virginia and Ohio] is linked to the powerful influence of local petrochemical industries,” Brumfield wrote. “‘We have politicians still investing in petrochemicals to save the oil and gas industry … They’re wanting to store ethane here now. We’re still learning about the dangers of all these petrochemicals … We have to move past it,’ Engle said.”
It’s worth observing that DuPont’s PFOA pollution began long before today’s federal environmental laws were written, like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Nonetheless, some in the Ohio River Valley remain concerned about the impacts that permitted pollution from new petrochemical projects could have.
“As I sat and watched the newly released movie ‘Dark Waters, I thought, ‘This could be the future of the Ohio River Valley,’” Randi Pokladnik, a retired research chemist who volunteers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, wrote in a December 13 letter to the editor published by the Columbus Dispatch. “Ohio’s regulatory agencies know millions of tons of toxins will be coming out of the plastics cracker smokestacks and into the air. They know toxic organic compounds will be flowing into the Ohio River.”
Mid-way through Dark Waters, Darlene Kiger (played by Mare Winningham) describes the “Teflon flu” that workers, including her ex-husband — who used PFOA — developed. “We knew something wasn’t right,” Kiger says. “But this house, we bought it just by showing the bank my husband’s DuPont ID. Put both our kids through college, engineers. And, in this town, that doesn’t come without a price.”
That’s a moral dilemma that may confront more residents along the Ohio if the petrochemical industry arrives en masse (though it’s worth noting that DuPont’s Parkersburg plant employed 2,000 directly and roughly 1,000 more contractors, while modern petrochemical plants like Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver will employ an expected 600).
In the meantime, Dark Waters offers a look back at the extraordinary tenacity — and at times, simple luck — it took for those outside DuPont’s inner circle to begin to understand the hazards and the harms the company’s chemical contamination had caused.
Main image: Mark Ruffalo, right, playing attorney Rob Bilott in the film Dark Waters. Credit: Dark Waters
'Dark Waters' movie poses risk for 3M, analyst says
The Environmental Working Group estimates that in the United States there are 1,361 PFAS-contaminated sites.
The Bank of America analysts led by Andrew Obin noted that while they ultimately believe passage of the bill in its current form is "unlikely," a change in Senate control is a "political risk" for PFAS manufacturers.
Even if 3M is not held responsible under federal legislation, the firm said that "the company will likely face a large number of lawsuits from site owners and end-users," but that it will most likely be "manageable over time."
The firm has a neutral rating and a $175 target on the stock.
3M has addressed concerns over its use of PFAS compounds. "As part of 3M's philosophy and policy to continually improve its products and minimize their impact on the environment, the materials used by 3M have been tested and assessed to assure their safety for intended uses. In addition to providing this data to regulatory agencies, much of this data is publicly available," the company says on its website.
3M did not return a call for comment.
CNBC reached out to DuPont for a comment regarding the company's portrayal in "Dark Waters." The company provided the following statement:
"Safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont. We are – and have always been – committed to upholding the highest standards for the wellbeing of our employees, our customers and the communities in which we operate. As a science-based company, DuPont is innovating in all facets of our business – in our policies and protocols as well as our products. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.
"Although DuPont does not make the chemicals in question, we agree that further action needs to be taken. That's why we are leading the industry by supporting federal legislation and science-based regulatory efforts to address these chemicals. We also have announced a series of commitments around our limited use of PFAS, including the eliminating the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams from our facilities and granting royalty-free licenses to those seeking to use innovative PFAS remediation technologies.
"Unfortunately, while seeking to thrill and entertain, this movie misrepresents things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science. In some cases, the film depicts wholly imagined events. We have always – and will continue to – work with those in the scientific, not-for-profit and policy communities who demonstrate a serious and sincere desire to improve our health, our communities and our planet."
Editor's note: This report, originally published on Nov. 20, was updated with DuPont's statement on Nov. 22.
—CNBC's Michael Bloom contributed reporting.
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Is Dark Waters a true story? How Robert Bilott’s DuPont legal battle inspired the Mark Ruffalo thriller
Legal thriller Dark Waters tells the story of tenacious attorney Mark Ruffalo, who takes a stand against a chemical company that has been poisoning a local town.
From director Todd Haynes (Carol, Wonderstruck), the film is based on real events that affected thousands of people in West Virginia.
Here’s everything you need to know about the story behind it.
What is Dark Waters about?
Robert Bilott is a defence attorney who works on the environmental team at Cincinnati-based firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister.
Most of his days are spent defending the interests of major corporations like chemical giants DuPont – the massive firm which came in at number 35 on the 2019 Fortune 500 list of the largest companies in the United States.
However, everything changed in 1998 when a farmer from his father’s hometown told him that his cattle had been mysteriously dying in huge numbers in a grisly fashion – foaming at the mouth and covered in lesions.
When Bilott looked into the case, he uncovered clear evidence that DuPont’s nearby chemical plant had been dumping toxic waste into the town’s water supply. The plant in question was 35 times the size of the Pentagon.
The most concerning chemical being dumped was perfluorooctanoic acid, usually called PFOA, which had been linked to severe birth defects when pregnant women were exposed to it, as well as a host of illnesses including several forms of cancer.
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The substance is nearly indestructible and so there are clear guidelines in place for how it must be disposed of. By not following them, DuPont allowed huge amounts of it to enter the town’s water supply.
Ultimately, DuPont was found to have poisoned over 70,000 local people as well as hundreds of animals.
Convincing anyone to join him in his fight against one of the most powerful organisations in the country would prove an almost impossible task for Bilott and the case itself dragged on for over a decade.
How accurate is the film’s version of events?
Both the events of the movie and the characters represented in it are all very closely based on the real story.
The film originated from a 2016 New York Times article about the case. Mark Ruffalo read the story and immediately bought the rights for the film.
He then reached out to Bilott directly to get a fuller picture of the story, and the lawyer himself became involved with the film from there on.
Perhaps most significantly, the film remains absolutely true to the fact in all of the harmful practices it depicts DuPont engaging in, including the fact that they knew about the damage they were causing long before Bilott exposed it.
To ensure that his portrayal of the sadly now deceased farmer Wilbur Tennant was faithful to the real person, actor Bill Camp reached out to his brother and sister to learn more about him.
Of course, to tell a story effectively, certain changes will be made for dramatic reasons – the scene in which a DuPont executive sneers “f**k you, hick” at Bilott was invented for the film.
However, even some of the film’s more dramatic moments were shockingly faithful – the scene in which Tennant brandishes a rifle at one of DuPont’s helicopters did actually take place.
In real life, Bilott himself is still fighting. In October 2018, he filed a new suit against three other companies, one of whom was previously a part of DuPont.
When is the movie out?
Dark Waters will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 28 February 2020.
Read More: Best new films coming out in 2020, and when they’re released in UK cinemas
Dark Waters Tells the True Story of the Lawyer Who Took DuPont to Court and Won. But Rob Bilott’s Fight Is Far From Over
Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer-turned-environmental crusader, doesn’t much care if he’s made enemies over the years. “I’ve been dealing with this for almost three decades,” he says. “I can’t really worry about if the people on the other side like me or not.”
Bilott used to be on the other side. The Todd Haynes-directed movie Dark Waters, now playing in theaters, tells the story of how the lawyer, played by Mark Ruffalo, switched allegiances. As happened in real life, the movie depicts Ruffalo’s Bilott as a lawyer who defends large chemical companies before he is approached for help in 1998 by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a West Virginia farmer whose land was contaminated by chemical giant DuPont. Inflamed by that injustice, and the complicity of local authorities, the lawyer risks his career as he embarks on a decades-long legal siege of one of America’s most powerful corporations. He works, at first, on Tennant’s behalf, then pursues a class action suit representing around 70,000 people living near a chemical plant that allegedly contaminated drinking water with PFOA, a toxic chemical used in the production of Teflon. In recent years, studies have correlated long-term exposure to PFOA with a number of illnesses, including some types of cancer.
In 2017, Bilott won a $671 million settlement on behalf of more than 3,500 plaintiffs. Those people claimed they had contracted diseases, among them kidney cancer and testicular cancer, from chemicals DuPont allegedly knew may have been dangerous for decades, and allowed to contaminate their drinking water anyway.
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In Dark Waters, Haynes emphasizes the seemingly endless fight taken up by Bilott, as DuPont brings its considerable resources to bear to defend itself over the course of two decades. According to one analyst, the film’s potential to raise awareness about these issues could have a serious effect on some chemical companies’ bottom lines. But for the real Rob Bilott, the work of taking the industry to court is far from over. In October 2018, the lawyer filed a new lawsuit against several companies, including 3M, Arkema, and Chemours, a manufacturer spun off from DuPont in 2015. That ongoing case is seeking class action status, and was initially brought on behalf of Kevin Hardwick, a firefighting veteran of 40 years who used fire-suppression foams and firefighting equipment containing a class of chemicals known as PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOA is one type of PFAS chemical).
PFAS chemicals are used in products ranging from waterproof jackets to shaving cream, and they can leach into water supplies in areas where they are disposed of or used in fire suppression (in particular on military bases, where they have been used for years). According to Bilott’s complaint, studies currently suggest that PFAS is present in the blood of around 99% of Americans. The class of chemicals has broadly been linked to immune system disruption, while PFOA specifically has been found to be associated with cancers and other diseases. Bilott’s newest lawsuit, as with his prior cases, alleges that these companies knew for decades that PFAS chemicals, specifically PFOA, could be linked to serious health problems, and that they still assured the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other U.S. government regulators that PFAS exposures were harmless.
“What we’re hearing once again from those companies that put those chemicals out there, knowing that they would get into the environment and into our blood, is that there’s insufficient evidence to show that they present risks to humans who are exposed,” explains Bilott. “These companies are going to sit back and say, we’re entitled to…use you as guinea pigs, yet those of you who are exposed are somehow the ones who are going to have to prove what these [chemicals] do to you.”
Some scientists are particularly worried by the potential health effects of those less-studied PFAS chemicals. Dr. Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental health at Harvard, conducted a study that appeared to suggest that babies exposed to PFAS could suffer impaired immune-system development. “I fell off the chair,” says Dr. Grandjean. “When I looked at those data it was mind-boggling.”
According to Bilott’s complaint, when his lawsuit’s defendants were asked by the EPA and other agencies to stop producing materials with PFOA, they switched to new “short chain” PFAS molecules. For scientists like Dr. Grandjean, there just isn’t enough information to know how short chain PFASs interact in the body, or if they’re safe. “Do we really want to keep exposing the population to potentially toxic chemicals and simply wait for the scientists to find statistically convincing evidence that they are toxic?” says Dr. Grandjean. “I would think that prevention would be a much better solution.”
The logic of Bilott’s new suit is to force chemical companies to pay to find answers. Rather than seeking monetary damages for the millions of Americans with PFAS in their blood, the lawsuit demands the Chemours and the other chemical companies pay for an independent science panel to definitively establish the health effects of PFAS.
In a statement, DuPont defended its safety and environmental record, and said that it does not produce PFAS chemicals, though it does use them. “We are leading the industry by supporting federal legislation and science-based regulatory efforts to address these chemicals,” the company wrote in an email. “We also have announced a series of commitments around our limited use of PFAS, including the [sic] eliminating the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams from our facilities and granting royalty-free licenses to those seeking to use innovative PFAS remediation technologies.” DuPont also questioned the veracity of unspecified events depicted in the Dark Waters film. The other companies named in the suit — the 3M Company, Dyneon, the Chemours Company, Archroma, Arkema, AGC, Daikin Industries and Solvay Specialty Polymers — did not respond to requests for comment.
In February, those defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss, which the court denied in September, allowing the case to proceed. The next legal step is for the court to decide whether the lawsuit will be permitted to go forward on behalf of a nationwide class. “We’re talking about chemicals that resulted in billions of dollars in profits over many, many years,” says Bilott. “That should be more than sufficient to help pay for whatever studies need to be done.”
The case could take years to resolve, and then years after that for any potential science panel to publish definitive conclusions. (The panel portrayed in the movie took seven years to come to its determination.) Few would have begrudged Bilott a few years to rest on his laurels and enjoy the royalties from his new book, aptly titled “Exposure,” before embarking on what will inevitably be a long and arduous series of proceedings. But Bilott says he doesn’t have plans to ever stop fighting PFAS contamination.
“If we can’t get where we need to go to protect people through our regulatory channels, through our legislative process, then unfortunately what we have left is our legal process,” says Bilott. “If that’s what it takes to get people the information they need and to protect people, we’re willing to do it.”
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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at [email protected]
Teflon movie dupont
What "Dark Waters" gets right about the DuPont/PFAS water pollution case
An estimated one third of Americans drink water tainted with human-made toxic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Hundreds of communities around the country are adjacent to PFAS hotspots originating from military bases, industrial facilities, or fire-training areas. More such places are identified almost every time someone spends the money to look. Ninety-nine percent of Americans’ blood contains PFAS, making PFAS contamination one of the most unifying characteristics of the American populace today. Our attention to the dizzying PFAS crisis in the U.S. is largely predicated on the work of an unfamiliar hero, Mr. Robert Bilott. Todd Haynes’s new feature film Dark Waters introduces the public to Bilott by chronicling his ground-breaking legal battle against the DuPont chemical company’s mishandling of PFAS contamination.
Dark Waters is based upon several accounts of Bilott’s work, reported by TheNew York Times Magazine,Sharon Lerner in The Intercept, and Bilott’s own account in his book Exposure. Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, is an attorney working for a large and prestigious corporate defense firm in Cincinnati when he is approached by a rough-shod and clearly frustrated acquaintance of his grandmother’s, a Mr. Earl Tennant (Bill Camp). Tennant provides tapes and physical documentation of the ghastly demise of his cattle farm in Parkersburg, West Virginia; Bilott spent time in Parkersburg and on Tennant’s farm as a child while visiting his grandmother there. Tennant is convinced that a landfill operated by the DuPont company upstream from his farm is the cause of the continuing maladies suffered by his cattle and his family. Bilott tries to communicate to Tennant that he “isn’t that kind of environmental lawyer,” yet Tennant’s exasperated resilience strikes a chord with the compassionate and upstanding ethos of Bilott. He persuades his boss (Tim Robbins) to allow him to pursue the case on a contingency basis.
I watched Dark Waters with my teenage nephew; the scenes following Bilott’s dive into the case are most aptly described by his words, as “the most gripping depiction of thousands of hours of tedious legal paperwork ever put on the silver screen.” Bilott’s work results in the release of hundreds of thousands of pages related to the landfill upstream of the Tennant’s farm; DuPont is trying to bury Bilott in paperwork. Their tactic underestimates Bilott’s fastidiousness, and he combs through every piece of the provided documentation to put together a story of unbelievable corporate malfeasance: DuPont knew they were exposing their workers and the surrounding community to high levels of a hazardous and unregulated chemicals and did not disclose this to anyone, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dupont also dumped tons of sludge containing a toxic but unregulated chemical in a landfill upstream of Tennant’s farm leading to the poisoning of his cattle, just as he suspected.
This dark dive into DuPont’s documents introduces Dark Waters’s audience to a pivotal villain of the film that didn’t make the credit list – PFOA. PFOA, also known as C8, are acronyms for perfluorooctanoic acid, a type of chemical used for decades by DuPont to produce Teflon. PFOA is part of the larger PFAS family, encompassing any human-created chemical that contains a certain number of carbon-fluorine chemical bonds. Because of the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond, this family of chemicals demonstrates remarkable environmental persistence, sticking around in the environment and living creatures for decades, if not centuries. PFOA also has widespread commercial and industrial utility. It is used in fire-fighting foams, nonstick cookware like Teflon, stain-resistant carpeting, water-resistant clothing, food packaging, compostable plates, some cosmetics, and many other consumer products that repel oil, grease, or water.
A dialogue between Bilott and his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) reveals why PFOA and other PFAS are problematic, despite their utility. PFOA and other PFAS are associated with adverse health effects at low exposure levels. High levels of PFOA in air, water, and soil around Parkersburg, pose real problems for public and ecological health.
The revelations surrounding PFOA and the scope of the DuPont’s cover-up result in a settlement for the Tennants, and a follow-up medical monitoring claim on behalf of thousands of citizens who drank water contaminated by PFOA leaked by the Parkersburg DuPont plant.
The deliberate and painstaking rhythm of Dark Waters as it follows these legal battles, which lasted from 1999 to 2015, does not wrap up with a cathartic resolution for audiences. Bilott wins both his cases versus DuPont despite continued corporate chicanery, but in the end the company admits no wrongdoing, no criminal case was pursued, no regulation of PFAS was enacted, and PFOA remains at elevated levels in the blood and bodies of the Parkersburg plaintiffs.
Today, we know the scope of contamination extends well beyond Parkersburg, West Virginia. PFOA and other PFAS remain in the blood of U.S. citizens and people around the globe, with no clear regulatory or remediation path in sight. PFAS remain unregulated at a federal level in the U.S. Chemical companies continue to churn out analogues of PFOA and other PFAS for use in consumer and industrial applications.
Bilott remains at the forefront of efforts to responsibly address PFAS use and misuse, beyond the narrative captured in Dark Waters. In 2018, he filed a class action lawsuit against eleven PFAS-producing companies on behalf of all Americans with PFAS in their blood—99% of the American public. His latest litigation tackles a larger swath of PFAS; it compels multiple PFAS-polluting companies to fund studies examining health effects associated with types of PFAS beyond PFOA. Such data will provide evidence of harm related to PFAS exposure. Without such information, concerned citizens must take on the burden of proof that individual harm was caused by a specific PFAS compound — an onerous and slow-moving undertaking, as exemplified by Wilbur Tennant in Dark Waters. In real life as in the film, Wilbur Tennant and his wife both contracted cancer and passed away before the resolution of Bilott’s legal efforts in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
As an early-career scientist researching PFAS, I appreciated the accuracy of the technical detail provided in Dark Waters and the searing, simple ways in which the film conveys the horrific scope of the Parkersburg PFOA story and its broader implications. Dark Waters captures the tones of despair and inequity that define the PFAS crisis — some people are allowed to pollute the bodies of others for a profit, and we tolerate a culture that allows this to be repeated over and over again. With this in mind, Bilott’s heroic efforts must be contextualized in light of a sobering truth — one man cannot vanquish the behemoth of PFAS contamination and the culture that enables it. The solution? As Bilott exclaims in the film: “We protect us.” Community engagement and activism across multiple scales and localities must continue to advocate for pollutant accountability and clean-up.
Editor’s Note: This article is part ofMuseumof theMovingImage's Sloan Science & Film publication's “Peer Review” series which commissions research scientists to write about topics in current film or television. Todd Haynes’s new feature Dark Waters is based on the true story of lawyer Rob Bilott’s case against the DuPont chemical company. To write about the film, Sloan Science & Film commissioned chemical oceanographer andMassive Sciencecontributor Anna Robuck. Robuck's primary research topic is the chemical PFAS featured in the film, and she has worked with Rob Bilott. Dark Waters stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, and Tim Robbins, and is now in theaters.
Dark Waters (2019 film)
2019 American legal thriller film directed by Todd Haynes
Dark Waters is a 2019 American legal thriller film directed by Todd Haynes and written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan. The story dramatizes Robert Bilott's case against the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont after they contaminated a town with unregulated chemicals. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Bilott, along with Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman.
The film is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" by Nathaniel Rich. The story was first told in the 2007 book "Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8" by Callie Lyons, a Mid-Ohio Valley journalist who covered the controversy as it was unfolding. Parts of the story were also reported by Mariah Blake, whose 2015 article "Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia" was a National Magazine Award finalist, and Sharon Lerner, whose series "Bad Chemistry" ran in The Intercept. Bilott also wrote a memoir, Exposure, detailing his 20-year legal battle against DuPont.
Dark Waters had a limited theatrical release on November 22, 2019, by Focus Features, and went wide on December 6, 2019. The film received positive reviews from critics and has grossed over $23 million.
Robert Bilott is a corporate defense lawyer from Cincinnati, Ohio working for law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Farmer Wilbur Tennant, who knows Robert's grandmother, asks Robert to investigate a number of unexplained animal deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant connects the deaths to the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont, and gives Robert a large case of videotapes.
Robert visits the Tennants' farm, where he learns that 190 cows have died with unusual medical conditions such as bloated organs, blackened teeth, and tumors. DuPont attorney Phil Donnelly tells him he is not aware of the case but will help out in any way he can. Robert files a small suit so he can gain information through legal discovery of the chemicals dumped on the site. When he finds nothing useful in the EPA report, he realizes the chemicals might not be regulated by the EPA.
Robert confronts Phil at an industry event, leading to an angry exchange. DuPont sends Robert hundreds of boxes, hoping to bury the evidence. Robert finds numerous references to PFOA, a chemical with no references in any medical textbook. In the middle of the night, Robert's pregnant wife Sarah finds him tearing the carpet off the floors and going through their pans. He has discovered that PFOA is perfluorooctanoic acid, used to manufacture Teflon and used in American homes for nonstick pans. DuPont has been running tests of the effect of PFOA for decades, finding that it causes cancer and birth defects, but did not make the findings public. They dumped thousands of tons of toxic sludge in a landfill next to Tennant's farm. PFOA and similar compounds are forever chemicals, chemicals that do not leave the blood stream and slowly accumulate.
Tennant has been shunned by his local community for suing their biggest employer. Robert encourages him to accept DuPont's settlement, but Tennant refuses, wanting justice. He tells Robert he and his wife both have cancer. Robert sends the DuPont evidence to the EPA and United States Department of Justice, among others. The EPA fines DuPont $16.5 million.
Robert, however, is not satisfied; he realizes that the residents of Parkersburg will suffer the effects of the PFOA for the rest of their lives. He seeks medical monitoring for all residents of Parkersburg in one large class-action lawsuit. However, DuPont sends a letter notifying residents of the presence of PFOA, thus starting the statute of limitations running, giving any further legal action only a month to begin.
Since PFOA is not regulated, Robert's team argues that the corporation is liable, as the amount in the water was higher than the one part per billion deemed safe by DuPont's internal documents. In court, DuPont claims that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has found that 150 parts per billion is safe. The locals protest and the story becomes national news. DuPont agrees to settle for benefits valued at over $300 million. As DuPont is only required to carry out medical monitoring if scientists prove that PFOA causes the ailments, an independent scientific review is set up. To get data for it, Robert's team tells the locals they can get their settlement money after donating blood. Nearly 70,000 people donate to the study.
Seven years pass with no result from the study. Tennant dies and Robert becomes destitute following several pay cuts, straining his marriage. When Supervising Partner Tom Terp tells him he needs to take another pay cut, Robert collapses, shaking. Doctors tell Sarah he suffered an ischemia, brought on by stress. Sarah tells Tom to stop making Robert feel like a failure, since he is doing something for people who need help.
The scientific panel contacts Robert and tells him that PFOA has been linked to two cancers and four other diseases. At dinner with his family, Robert is informed that DuPont is reneging on the entire agreement. Robert decides to take each defendant's case to DuPont, one at a time. He wins the first three cases with multimillion-dollar settlements against DuPont, and DuPont settles the remaining more than 3,500 disease cases for $671 million.
On September 21, 2018, it was announced that Todd Haynes would direct the film, then titled Dry Run, from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, which would be produced by Participant Media along with Mark Ruffalo. In November 2018, Ruffalo was officially set to star in the film.
In January 2019, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman joined the cast of the film, with Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler producing under their Killer Films banner.Principal photography began on January 14, 2019, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
William 'Bucky' Bailey appears as himself in the film. His mother Sue worked on the Teflon line in Dupont's facility.
Other real life individuals affected by the environmental catastrophe in Parkersburg and who appear in the film, include: Darlene and Joe Kiger, Crystal Wheeler and Amy Brode (Wilbur's daughters), Jim Tennant (Wilbur's brother), Sarah and Rob Bilott. Teddy, Charlie and Tony Bilott (Sarah and Rob's sons) also appear in the film.
The film premiered at the Walter Reade Theater on November 12, 2019. It entered limited release in the United States on November 22, 2019, before going wide on December 6, 2019.
Dark Waters has grossed more than $11.1 million in the United States and Canada, and $11.9 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of over $23.1 million.
In its opening weekend the film made $102,656 from four theaters, a per-venue average of $25,651. It expanded to 94 theaters the following weekend, making $630,000. The film went wide in its third weekend of release, making $4.1 million from 2,012 theaters, and then made $1.9 million in its fourth weekend.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a "Fresh" approval rating of 89% based on 225 critic reviews, with an average rating of 7.33/10, and holds an approval rating from audiences of 95%. The website's critics consensus reads, "Dark Waters powerfully relays a real-life tale of infuriating malfeasance, honoring the victims and laying blame squarely at the feet of the perpetrators." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale, while those at PostTrak gave it an average 3.5 out of 5 stars, with 60% saying they would definitely recommend it to a friend.
The DowDuPont breakup earlier in the year spun off a new DuPont company that continued to lose value throughout the second half of 2019 as investors grew concerned about the potential liabilities related to the old DuPont's fluoropolymer products. When Dark Waters was released on November 12, DuPont's stock price dropped even further by 7.15 points from 72.18 to 65.03. While the portfolio is now a part of Chemours and the companies settled the public health lawsuits referenced in the film, Chemours sued DuPont, alleging that the former parent company saddled it with onerous liabilities when it failed to prepare financial projections in good faith. Chemours estimated that it would need to pay over $200 million to address environmental damages in North Carolina caused by another PFAS manufacturing facility in that region. (The prior settlement in both West Virginia and Ohio cost $671 million, which was split between the two companies.)
DuPont CEO Marc Doyle, executives, and investors argued in internal statements that much of the movie was not based in fact and DuPont was misconstrued to fit the role of the enemy. According to Doyle, limited public statements were made because “in a situation like this, it just doesn’t do you much good to fight it out in the public eye. That would just drive more and more attention to it.” Executive chairman Ed Breen wouldn’t comment on whether DuPont would take legal action in response to the movie, but he did tell investors, “Obviously, we have a lot of legal folks [that] have been looking at this." Many of the executives with whom this movie draws fault still work, or recently worked, at DuPont. 3M saw little to no change in its stock price the day of the film's release, but it was already experiencing a "difficult year" from "potential liabilities due to possible litigation over previous production of PFAS." 3M's stock price closed at 256.01 on January 28, 2018, and by December 1, 2019, it had fallen to 168.27.
Many outlets considered the film was snubbed by the 92nd Academy Awards and 77th Golden Globe Awards, not receiving a nomination.
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