Meet the Lawyer Whose 20-Year Fight Against DuPont Inspired “Dark Waters”

The new film “Dark Waters” tells the story of attorney Rob Bilott’s 20-year battle with DuPont over contaminated drinking water in West Virginia from toxic chemicals used to make Teflon. The Environmental Working Group credited Billot with “uncovering the most heinous corporate environmental conspiracy in history,” and the issue of contaminated water from the plastics industry continues to devastate areas across the country. On Wednesday, the Environmental Working Group released a shocking report about how toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS have been found in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas including Miami, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. The so-called forever chemicals are linked to cancer, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, and they do not break down in the environment. We speak with attorney Robert Bilott, who has just published a new book titled Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont. He is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in the Hollywood film Dark Waters. We’re also joined by Tim Robbins, Academy Award-winning actor and director, who plays Bilott’s boss at his law firm in Dark Waters.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Tim?

TIM ROBBINS: Well, I wanted to mention where we’re going to be on tour with The New Colossus. It’ll be Charlotte, North Carolina, Knight Theater, January 28th through February 2nd; Schenectady, New York; Detroit, Michigan; Seattle, Washington; Durango, Colorado; Iowa City; Folsom, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.

AMY GOODMAN: And it sounds like it might be going beyond that, beyond — we will see. But we’re going to turn right now to something else you’ve just been focusing on, but a late study — a new study that’s just come out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the new study shows that tap water in 43 cities across the United States is contaminated with toxic chemicals known as PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and lowered fertility. The cities include Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The report was released by the Environmental Working Group.

Water contamination is the subject of the recent Hollywood film Dark Waters, which stars our guest Tim Robbins, as well as Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The film tells the story of attorney Rob Bilott’s 20-year battle with DuPont over contaminated drinking water in West Virginia from toxic chemicals used to make Teflon. Mark Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott. Tim Robbins plays his boss. This is the film’s trailer.

ROBERT BILOTT: [played by Mark Ruffalo] Hi, Grandmas.

ROBERT BILOTT’S GRANDMOTHER: What are you doing here?

WILBUR TENNANT: [played by Bill Camp] Your grandma tells me her grandson’s some fancy environment lawyer down in Cincinnati.

ROBERT BILOTT: I am a corporate defense attorney.

WILBUR TENNANT: So?

ROBERT BILOTT: I defend chemical companies.

WILBUR TENNANT: Well, now you can defend me.

ROBERT BILOTT: How many did you lose?

WILBUR TENNANT: A hundred ninety.

ROBERT BILOTT: A hundred and ninety cows?

WILBUR TENNANT: You tell me nothing’s wrong here.

ROBERT BILOTT: It’s a small matter for a family friend, help a guy who needs it.

TOM TERP: [played by Tim Robbins] The farmer or you?

WILBUR TENNANT: That’s chemicals, I’m telling you.

ROBERT BILOTT: I’m seeing documents I don’t understand. They’re hiding something. That chemical, what if you drank it?

DR. GILLESPIE: [played by John Newberg] Drank it? That’s like saying, “What if I swallowed a tire?”

ROBERT BILOTT: What if whatever’s killing those cows is in the drinking water?

PHIL DONNELLY: [played by Victor Garber] At DuPont, better living through chemistry. It’s our DNA.

SARAH BILOTT: [played by Anne Hathaway] You need to tell me what in the hell is going on.

ROBERT BILOTT: DuPont is knowingly poisoning 70,000 local residents for the last 40 years.

You knew. Still you did nothing.

PHIL DONNELLY: You want to flush your career down the toilet for some cowhand?

JAMES ROSS: [played by William Jackson Harper] You want to take everything that you know and turn it against an iconic American company like an informant, isn’t that right? Isn’t that right? Isn’t that right?

ROBERT BILOTT: Yes.

They have all the money, all the firepower. And they’ll use it. I know. I was one of them.

Our government is captive to DuPont. They’re trying to force you to make me stop.

SARAH BILOTT: He was willing to risk his job, his family, for a stranger who needed his help.

ROBERT BILOTT: The system is rigged. They want us to think it will protect us. We protect us. We do.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Dark Waters, based on the work of attorney Rob Bilott, who’s joining us now from Los Angeles. He won the Right Livelihood Award in 2017. He’s just published a new book. It’s called Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont. Still with us, director and actor Tim Robbins, who’s one of the stars of the film Dark Waters.

Well, first, before we talk about the film and your book, Rob, this latest news of the new report that finds this — that has detected highly toxic PFAS chemicals in the drinking waters of dozens of major cities across the country?

ROBERT BILOTT: Yeah, you know, and it really highlights that we’re talking about chemical contamination that goes far beyond — excuse me — far beyond one farmer’s property in West Virginia, even one community in West Virginia and Ohio. We’re talking about contamination now that’s in drinking water all across this country and now all across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us — explain what this chemical is and how it got there?

ROBERT BILOTT: Yeah. What we’re talking about is a completely man-made chemical, something that didn’t exist on the planet prior to World War II. It was developed right after the war by the 3M Company, and it was sent down to DuPont, who used it in the manufacturing of Teflon outside their West Virginia plant for about 60 years. Unfortunately, a lot of that occurred in the decades before the U.S. EPA even existed. The U.S. EPA didn’t come into being until 1970. So, tons of this chemical were being used at the plant, emitted out into the environment, into the air, into the water, into the soils in the surrounding community, and sent to facilities all over the country and all over the world that used this product in making a wide variety of consumer products, not just cookware — stain-resistant clothing, fabric coatings, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant materials of all kinds, fast-food wrappers, you name it.

So, by the time we finally figured out that this chemical was being used, that it was being emitted into our environment and that it was getting into drinking water all over the country and the blood of virtually every living creature in the planet, it had already been out there and being pumped out into our environment, with really the regulators and the public being completely unaware. And it’s taken quite some time to get that story out and for people to start realizing the scope of this contamination. You know, we’re talking about something that’s contamination of really an unprecedented scale: worldwide contamination of water, soil, the blood of humans and animals all over the planet. And most of us, unfortunately, are just now learning about this, even though the information about the toxicity of these chemicals, the fact that it was getting out in the environment, that it would get into us and stay in us, was known by the companies using these materials for decades. And that information wasn’t shared with the rest of us.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s amazing about the film Dark Waters — and, Tim Robbins, you play Rob’s boss; Mark Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott, the attorney — the plaintiffs in West Virginia, the people who were poisoned, their animals poisoned, their property poisoned by this DuPont factory, go to Rob Bilott because his grandma lived in the area, and they understood he was a corporate lawyer, so he would take on the corporations, as opposed to the fact that, no, he represented the corporations.

TIM ROBBINS: That’s right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were his boss.

TIM ROBBINS: Yes. And this is a true story. His boss saw the merit in it and said to Rob, who just had become a partner in the law firm, “Go ahead and do it.” And 12 years later, Rob was still going on, and it was costing the firm a lot of money. It was counterintuitive for the firm to do it, but he saw the moral obligation that all of them had, once they knew the truth of this, to pursue the case.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Rob, the lawsuit that you brought, who you represented and what people won, though the world has lost so much and this case continues?

ROBERT BILOTT: Yeah. You know, we started off with the farmer in West Virginia, Mr. Tennant, representing him and his family, then, realizing it was in the drinking water of that entire community, represented about the 70,000 people along the Ohio River in Ohio and West Virginia. And as this contamination, the awareness of it, is spreading across the country, we are now bringing a new case, where we’re seeking to represent everyone in the country, who now has these chemicals in their blood.

And hopefully we can require a independent scientific study to confirm exactly what this broad group of chemicals will do to us. We focused on one of them, PFOA, and that’s the chemical that you see focused on in the movie and in my book, as well. But what we now know is PFOA is just one of many of these man-made synthetic chemicals that are getting out in our water, in our blood, and unfortunately the rest of us don’t have much information about what these other chemicals are doing. So we’re trying to get independent scientific studies to confirm that, and to have it so the rest of us aren’t paying for that.

TIM ROBBINS: And Rob did probably the most extensive blood work study in the area that the farmer was.

AMY GOODMAN: In West Virginia.

TIM ROBBINS: And, you know, Rob, maybe you want to talk about that. Recently —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

TIM ROBBINS: Oh, sorry. But the EPA has been really — has recently been, a secret memo discovered, trying to get rid of the science of that.

ROBERT BILOTT: Yeah, you know, and that the study that was —

TIM ROBBINS: To protect DuPont.

ROBERT BILOTT: Yeah, the study we did in West Virginia ended up being one of the largest studies ever done of a chemical. We had 70,000 people. And it’s 12 different epidemiological studies, spanning seven years, costing tens of millions of dollars. And the end result was independent scientific confirmation that this chemical causes diseases, including cancers.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 at democracynow.org. Rob Bilott, thanks so much for joining us. His new book is called Exposure. And Oscar-winning actor and director Tim Robbins. The film is Dark Waters. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.