Rob Bilott is not a man who’s quick to anger – even after more than 20 years fighting. Bilott’s fight has been to get justice for a small community exposed to deadly chemicals, against a system that wouldn’t listen. Calm and deliberate when he speaks to us, he is clearly accustomed to stating his case over and over again.
Back in 1998, Bilott was rising through the ranks as a corporate environmental defence lawyer in a prestigious Cincinnati law firm. “A lot of what we were doing was helping our corporate clients, including a lot of chemical companies, comply with different state and federal environmental laws,” he says.
“I’d been working within a system I thought I understood but there was this whole world of unregulated yet potentially more dangerous chemicals completely outside that system. I began to learn that when Mr Tennant walked into my office.”
Wilbur Tennant was a West Virginia farmer who contacted Bilott through a family connection. “I was talking to him at the recommendation of my grandmother,” he recalls. Bilott had spent time as a child near the Tennants’ farm in Parkersburg.
The Tennants had been losing cattle in distressing ways. Abrasions covered their hides, white froth seeped from their mouths and they had become aggressive. One calf died with electric-blue eyes. Wilbur suspected the cause was water contamination from chemical giant DuPont, which he thought was dumping toxic waste in neighbouring landfill.
“It seemed a straightforward issue,” Bilott says of his meeting with Wilbur, a client unlike his normal paymasters. “I assumed we’d be able to do what we’d been doing for our corporate clients. I could pull the permits, I could figure out what was being released from that landfill, what the limits were and get to the bottom of it relatively quickly.”
He couldn’t. While DuPont rejected the claims, Bilott discovered the substance in question was perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, a toxic chemical used in Teflon production. He successfully petitioned DuPont through the courts to release all its documentation on the substance.
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The documents he acquired – 110,000 pages, some half a century old, taking months to sort through – revealed the company had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge into the landfill, a landfill that drained into the Tennants’ property. They also revealed DuPont had known for decades PFOA may have severe and wide-ranging health effects, yet still allowed it to contaminate the drinking water.
“I had no idea we would be discovering an unregulated chemical was impacting his cattle, his family, his property,” he says. “Not only that, but it was in the drinking water of the entire surrounding community, and then we found out pretty much in water and blood across the entire planet.”
Bilott’s initial work culminated in a 972-page letter warning various regulatory authorities including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the health threat. “DuPont went to a federal court and tried to get a gag order to prevent me from saying anything more,” he says. DuPont failed and ultimately had to pay $16.5m to the EPA – less than two per cent of the profits earned on PFOA that year.
Not satisfied, in 2004 Bilott once again took on DuPont’s considerable resources in a class action suit representing around 70,000 people living near a chemical plant, achieving a settlement that paid for a six-year health study.
He had put everything on the line to secure that study – his job, family and health – but his persistence paid off, finding links between PFOA and several diseases including kidney and testicular cancer. In a follow-up case in 2017, he won a $671m settlement on behalf of more than 3,500 plaintiffs in personal injury claims against DuPont.
We are continuing to see statements that the agency is ‘working on it’ and is still investigating. We’ve been hearing that for 20 years
And here’s where the story could end, the hero with his fist aloft. But it doesn’t. “Despite being 19 years since we first revealed this to the EPA and the public in the US, we still don’t have binding, enforceable governmental standards or limits for this chemical in drinking water in the United States,” he laments.
Whereas this should be a clean water issue, these regulations have become a political one – not only regarding PFOA but other related chemicals, prompting fresh concerns. Aggressive lobbying and vested interests run rampant. Surely Donald Trump’s indifference towards environmentalism can’t help?
On this, Bilott is diplomatic. “It has transcended multiple administrations,” he says. “But unfortunately, with the current administration, certainly, we’re seeing the same scenario play out. We are continuing to see statements that the agency is ‘working on it’ and is still investigating. We’ve been hearing that for 20 years.”
Rather than rest, Bilott is working on a new class action against several companies over PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances (to which PFOA belongs) found in products ranging from waterproof jackets to shaving cream and linked with similar health issues.
“I’m seeking to have that case brought on behalf of everyone in the United States who has these chemicals in their blood, which is almost everyone in the country,” he says. His goal is to establish an independent scientific panel to study the health effects of these chemicals – and he wants the chemical companies to pay for it.
Today, he’s hopeful. “We’re finally seeing discussions in the United States at the federal level for the first time. We’re seeing discussions in the EU, the UK Parliament, worldwide, about this being an urgent issue that needs to be addressed.”
In the meantime, new chemicals enter the market every day. “We can’t just sit back and assume there are folks out there taking care of us. We have to be proactive and make sure we understand exactly how this system works and where it doesn’t, so we can hopefully improve the system.”
Dark Waters ends appropriately with the song I Won’t Back Down. “There may be powerful interests that have created the system, it may be very difficult, it may be a long struggle,” Bilott says, “but in the end, even one individual can make dramatic change. The truth always comes out. The truth prevails in the end.”
Dark Waters is in cinemas now, Rob Bilott‘s book Exposure is out now