The whole thing started in 1998 with a farmer’s rambling, angry phone call to complain about how hundreds of his cattle were mysteriously dying.
In a thick, almost unintelligible Appalachian accent, Wilbur Tennant described how everyone else in his West Virginia town had ostracised him after he’d pointed the finger of blame at DuPont, the chemical giant whose huge plant dominated the town.
Rob Bilott, the lawyer he’d rung in desperation, was so confused he was about to hang up — when the farmer said he knew Bilott’s grandmother. As a favour to her, he agreed to meet the aggrieved cattleman.
His spur-of-the-moment decision would lead, after a dogged investigation stretching into years, to Bilott uncovering one of the biggest industrial scandals in U.S. history.
DuPont — which was quietly sending staff out into surrounding areas carrying plastic jugs to collect water samples — didn’t alert local people when it found traces of PFOA in levels that well exceeded its own safety guidelines
In an outrage that has been dubbed ‘America’s Chernobyl’, DuPont for decades brazenly concealed the lethal dangers of exposure to a chemical used in the making of Teflon, its ‘miracle’ anti-stick coating, even as it poured vast amounts of the substance into America’s waterways.
The toxic chemical — a fine, powdery white compound that easily escapes into the air — is called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, or C8) and is now so ubiquitous it has even been found in polar bears, dolphins and eagles.
Dubbed a ‘forever’ chemical because it hardly ever degrades, it is estimated to be in the bodies of 90 pc of the world’s population.
Its effects on animals and humans near the DuPont factory were appalling — it caused cancer, birth deformities, enlarged organs and blackened, rotting teeth.
Now the story of how its terrible impact was brought to light has been turned into a feature film, Dark Waters, which opens in the UK next week.
The chilling legal thriller stars Mark Ruffalo as Bilott and Anne Hathaway as his wife Sarah, another lawyer.
‘It’s a horror story that has to be told. It’s a story for our time,’ says Ruffalo, who plays The Hulk in Marvel’s superhero films.
He developed and produced the film after reading a newspaper article about Bilott’s tenacious fight against DuPont, one of the world’s biggest industrial corporations.
Rob Bilott, the lawyer he’d rung in desperation, was so confused he was about to hang up — when the farmer said he knew Bilott’s grandmother. As a favour to her, he agreed to meet the aggrieved cattleman. Rob Bilott is pictured above with Mark Ruffalo
According to Bilott, the scandal may be 20 years old but it is still hugely relevant today.
‘We’re talking about a chemical that has managed to find its way into the blood of almost everything on the planet,’ he has said.
PFOA has been used for more than 70 years in products that include non-stick pans, stain-resistant clothes and carpets, dental floss and food packaging such as pizza boxes.
It is often found in household dust now. But in 1998 nobody had heard of it — or at least, nobody outside the companies that manufactured it or used it in their products.
As Rob Bilott discovered, the Tennant family’s farm was right next to DuPont’s vast Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where it manufactured Teflon.
In the early 1980s, the Tennant family sold 66 acres to the chemical giant. This land contained a stream that took water to a pasture where the farmer grazed his cows, but DuPont used the area as a supposedly ‘non-hazardous’ landfill site.
However, the stream soon turned black and smelly, with sometimes a layer of foam sitting on the water.
Within a few years, about 280 of Mr Tennant’s cattle that had drunk water from the creek had died.
He also found dead deer, which, like the cattle, had haemorrhaged blood from their noses and mouths.
When he cut open a dead cow to investigate, he found that its internal organs had turned bright green. Other animals lost their hair or developed grotesque malformations and vivid blue eyes.
PFOA has been used for more than 70 years in products that include non-stick pans, stain-resistant clothes and carpets, dental floss and food packaging such as pizza boxes. It is often found in household dust now [File photo]
He gave video evidence of this to Bilott, along with footage of a large DuPont pipe discharging green water into the murky stream.
The farmer and his family also suffered, developing breathing difficulties and even cancers that would prove fatal.
Despite working for a big law firm that specialised in defending chemicals companies rather than prosecuting them, Bilott sensed a grave injustice and took the case.
He sued DuPont in 1999 and the company responded by hiring a panel of vets to investigate Tennant’s farm. They conveniently concluded that the cattle had died because they had been poorly looked after.
Meanwhile, the Tennants were ostracised by locals who nearly all, in one way or another, depended on DuPont as the town’s big employer. Lifelong friends walked out of restaurants when the Tennants arrived and the family changed churches four times.
Then, by chance, Bilott stumbled on a letter DuPont had sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that mentioned something at the landfill called PFOA.
He’d never heard of it and nor, incredibly, had the EPA, as it had become available long before new regulations were introduced to control toxic substances.
Forced by a court order to reveal everything it had on PFOA, DuPont sent Bilott dozens of boxes containing documents that ran to 110,000 pages.
If the intention was to swamp him with so much information he wouldn’t be able to check it, it failed. Trawling through the files, the lawyer was staggered by what he found.
Whether it realised it or not, DuPont revealed that it had known for many years that PFOA was dangerous but, putting profits first, kept quiet.
The papers showed DuPont began buying the chemical in 1951 from 3M, the U.S. company that created it in a laboratory. 3M told DuPont it should be disposed of by being incinerated or sent to chemical-waste facilities.
Even DuPont’s own internal guidelines insisted it should never be flushed into surface water or sewers, while a DuPont scientist warned that it was so hard to contain when airborne, ‘it might require the public to wear gas masks’.
Yet for decades, DuPont pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder out of the Parkersburg plant and straight into the great Ohio River. It also dumped more than 7,000 tons of PFOA-infected sludge into open pits within the factory grounds.
The pits were unlined, so it would seep into the ground, further contaminating the water supply. The drinking water for 100,000 people had been affected.
Meanwhile, Bilott discovered, DuPont had been conducting secret tests on PFOA for 40 years, finding that it enlarged the organs of animals and hardly ever degraded, building up in the blood.
It wasn’t just infecting animals. In the 1970s, DuPont found high concentrations of PFOA in the blood of its factory workers, but it didn’t tell environmental regulators.
Nor did it raise the alarm when it discovered that factory staff were giving birth to babies with severe medical problems, including a boy with a deformed eye and a missing nostril.
DuPont — which was quietly sending staff out into surrounding areas carrying plastic jugs to collect water samples — didn’t alert local people when it found traces of PFOA in levels that well exceeded its own safety guidelines.
Bilott discovered that by the 1990s, DuPont also knew PFOA caused testicular, prostate, pancreatic and liver cancer in laboratory animals.
The company briefly considered finding an alternative chemical but decided that, as PFOA was worth $1 billion a year in profits, it was too important to take any risks. So it kept silent.
Now the story of how its terrible impact was brought to light has been turned into a feature film, Dark Waters, which opens in the UK next week. Tim Robbins is pictured above as Tom Terp, along with Anne Hathaway as Sarah Barlage and Mark Ruffalo playing Robert Bilott
And why were Mr Tennant’s cattle dying? DuPont had at least become sufficiently worried about the risks of the toxic sludge pits on its site that it agreed they needed to be put into landfill.
The 66 acres bought off the Tennants were judged to fit the bill perfectly. Even when DuPont tested the water in the stream and found it contained a very high concentration of PFOA, it didn’t tell the farmer.
When Rob Bilott confronted DuPont with his bombshell evidence, all contained in company files, it caved in and settled. But Bilott was unwilling to leave it there.
He was infuriated by the monstrous scale of the deception and wondered what the poisoned water had done to local people.
He also knew that PFOA was just one of more than 60,000 synthetic materials produced by U.S. manufacturers with no regulatory oversight.
He passed on what he knew to environmental regulators and the U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft. The Environmental Protection Agency sued DuPont in 2004 for concealing its knowledge of PFOA’s toxicity and presence in the water.
Evidence cited by the EPA showed PFOA had got into U.S. blood banks — and that the blood in the average adult American contained about five times as much PFOA as DuPont considered safe. The agency warned that even cooking with a Teflon-coated pan could be hazardous.
DuPont agreed to pay $16.5 million in settlement but critics complained it was a slap on the wrist — the company didn’t have to admit any liability and the fine was less than some DuPont divisions earned in a day.
Intent on twisting the screw on DuPont, Bilott launched a ‘class-action’ lawsuit against the company on behalf of everyone whose water had been tainted. He was eventually representing 70,000 people. This time DuPont stumped up more than $100 million, nearly $22 million of which went to Bilott and his firm.
Any other lawyer would have called it a day but he still wasn’t satisfied. DuPont had yet to admit liability.
So far, it had paid its way out of trouble — and cheaply, considering how much it was making in Teflon sales. But then DuPont made a mistake by agreeing to fund a multimillion-dollar health study, overseen by independent scientists, to determine whether exposure to PFOA had actually harmed people. Bilott and his clients waited for the evidence that would really damn DuPont.
The scientists took seven years to complete their research, an agonisingly long wait for those involved. During that time, some of Bilott’s clients died of cancer — including Wilbur Tennant and his wife. Bilott himself developed stress-related medical problems, including slurred speech and partial paralysis.
In December 2011, the scientists finally started to release their findings, linking PFOA to six diseases — kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. The findings were especially shocking because they showed the chemical affected almost the entire body, even at low levels of exposure.
DuPont eventually reached a $670.7 million cash settlement covering more than 3,500 people who drank contamined water in the Parkersburg area.
DuPont continues to deny responsibility. It released a statement saying that it believes the new film ‘misrepresents things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science’, adding that ‘safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont’.
It stopped using PFOA in 2013 but experts believe it is still being produced in China, while similar replacement chemicals used by DuPont and its rivals have raised fresh concerns.
Chiefly because PFOA is transported easily in water droplets in clouds, it has spread across the entire planet.
All but the youngest of us have traces of PFOA in our systems. Tests have shown that it is in the blood of nearly 99 per cent of adult Americans.
PFOA is expected to linger in the environment for thousands more years — but the battle isn’t over. DuPont has been accused of similar poisoning outrages elsewhere in the U.S.
And Rob Bilott is still on the warpath. Last year he launched another class-action lawsuit, this time on behalf of everyone in the U.S. with even a trace of the deadly chemical in their blood.
Dark Waters is in cinemas from February 28
- I Don’t Fall Sick Any More, A Former NNPC Staff Reveals What He Used and How You Can Also Benefit Too!
- Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston reveals he almost killed himself by jumping in front of a train in depression battle
- Long good reads: the best features from 20 years of G2
- ‘We slathered ourselves in baby oil and coke to bake like rotisserie chickens on home sunbeds – now we’re paying the price’
- W. Earl Brown
- io9's Ultimate Guide to 2018's Scifi, Fantasy, and Superhero TV
- 'This Week' Transcript: Extreme Weather, Kevin Spacey
- Celebrity deaths in 2017: Famous faces gone too soon from Sir Bruce Forsyth to Gogglebox's Leon Bernicoff
- 'This Week' Transcript: Former Obama National Security Adviser Tom Donilon
- Liam Payne says he’s ‘quite lucky’ to be alive after fame ‘nearly killed’ him
- "Down The Rabbit Hole I Go": How A Young Woman Followed Two Hackers' Lies To Her Death
- TV Spies & Secret Agents
- Calls to boycott Michael Jackson's music after explosive HBO documentary
- The World’s Most Innovative Companies
- ‘This Week’ Transcript: Gov. Jerry Brown
- For better or worse,
- 'This Week' Transcript 6-2-19: Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Jim Jordan
- The best comics of 2019 so far
- What Happened To Lindsay Lohan?
Chernobyl in the USA: Thrilling new movie reveals how a heroic lawyer found the US giant behind Teflon was pumping out a deadly molecule that causes cancer and deformities for YEARS - and it's in 90 per cent of us have 2304 words, post on www.dailymail.co.uk at February 20, 2020. This is cached page on Travel News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.