When I wrote my last column about the arsenic dumped in the water we drink, little did I know about the bestselling book by lawyer Rob Bilott called Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed and one lawyer’s twenty-year battle against DuPont. If you are not a reader, than it’s imperative you see the movie Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo, which brings this true story to life.
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 due to chemical PFOA, 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.
After selecting their own experts (who conveniently ignored the company’s use of perfluorooctanoic acid,(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.
But Bilott’s own research 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.
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. 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. The personal injury lawsuits that followed — by some 3,500 victims — cost Dupont $671.7 million!
PFOA has also been found in upstate New York and other rural areas. China still produces thousands of pounds of the stuff every day, making the U.S. still susceptible to PFOA from imported items.
So take some time to see this movie, you won’t regret it!
Have a Merry Christmas and safe Happy New Year!
Reach Inez Whitehead Dickens at firstname.lastname@example.org.