Exposure by Robert Bilott

Robert Bilott’s ‘auto-documentary’ book, Exposure, on Du Pont’s chemical pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia, is a sobering look at the immorality of corporate America of recent times. In a searing study of how greed drives so much economic activity in America these days, Robert Bilott’s personally and legally revealing work was first made known to me when I recently saw the film Dark Waters – a Todd Hayes (directed) and Mark Ruffalo (produced and lead role acted) – a fine film, worthy of several nominations in this year Hollywood hoopla round. It received none BTW. I think we get the picture.

Bilott’s book tells us the whole story. It begins with Rob Bilott’s ‘unusual’ jumping the fence from his law firm’s usual corporate defence work to take on a plaintiff’s case for an angry lone quite desperate West Virginia farmer, Earl Tennant, who contacted him, then showed up at his office carrying a mountain of evidence.

What Rob Bilott discovered demonstrated how Du Pont had been for years dumping poisonous waste from its Washington Works plant at Parkersburg, West Virginia, into landfills which leached into rivers, streams and ponds, killing cattle and compromising the health of many inhabitants in a wide area around the Parkersburg plant. 

His book is a story of corporate harm, demonstrating the casual and arrogant and quite ugly ease with which a powerful corporation can engage in immoral practices in the name of business as usual. Initially rebuffed by Du Pont, Bilott convinced the courts to order the company to agree to setting up an independent scientific investigation into the potential harm done by a chemical PFOA, that Du Pont used for many products, famously in Teflon, a huge worldwide profit source and spinner for the firm. 

After years of waiting for results from an exhaustive scientific study of the blood samples of nearly 70,000 people in the immediate and surrounding areas, the appointed scientific panel finally came back with findings of clear probable cause links to several major life threatening and life-altering diseases and conditions. The ruined natural water and piped-water supplies meant that many were already suffering, some dying, from these diseases and conditions. 

This story is as stunning as it has been breathtaking, a jury finally finding for a class civil action against the company – who put up a fierce and at times devious public relations & legal defence – with the plaintiffs awarded a 670 million dollar settlement against Du Pont. Du Pont appealed and appealed then in the face of the evidence folded and accepted the jury’s decision. 

This whole immoral if not statutorily felonious ‘environmental crime’ was aided and abetted by the EPA who worked in tandem with Du Pont to obfuscate and hide key facts of a chemical dumping program from the public, while Du Pont carried on its harmful activities for years, abusing the basic trust its economic stranglehold over the small community provided, where they were the town’s main employer, knowing full well all along that PFOA was an extremely dangerous substance for all life forms. 

So in summary, a fine book and a very necessary read for people who want clean land, air and water and a reasonable chance at living life without corporations poisoning them or providing them with cancer. Also for anyone who believes that honest and accountable corporate activities are a necessary right for individuals in any properly managed and democratically governed society in the 21st century. 

Without Earl Tennant bringing this to Robert Bilott’s attention and Bilott deciding to take the career risk of bringing this civil action on behalf of Earl and many others, for so many stress-filled years of his life, we may never have even heard about Du Pont’s malfeasance.

(In a run up to the class-action trial, Du Pont spun off its Washington Works plant into a new company, Chemours, in a technique many companies use to limit financial damage by placing the offending product range under another firm, that can easily be tipped in bankruptcy thus preventing a payout. After years of seeing how Du Pont operated Robert Bilott was ready for the legal tactic.)

Exposure

Reading Robert Bilott’s ‘Exposure’ on Du Pont’s chemical pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the book in giving a great deal of legal and personal background to the story in the film Dark Waters (see below), answered a question that came to me while seeing the film: why wasn’t Bilott removed from his Ohio corporate law firm particularly as corporate defence was its main bread and butter?

I wondered how Du Pont’s power didn’t trump Bilott’s personal and moral interest in the plight of one farmer, Wilbur Earl Tennant, by simply pulling strings to give the crusading lawyer an offer he couldn’t refuse. Get out of town boyo, now. They tried. More power to Rob for his courage and dedication, and to Earl of course who started the whole process.

Rob Bilott in jumping the fence to take the plaintiff’s side against Du Pont uncovers an ugly story of corporate harm done to the community of Parkersburg and surrounding populations. The casual and arrogant ease with which this immensely powerful and rich corporation lied and cheated and eventually killed people in the pursuit of profit is as stunning as it was breathtaking (pun intended).

Working in tandem with weak and complicit authorities to hide the facts of a chemical dumping program, Du Pont knowingly carried on its ‘corporate crime’ for years and years, poisoning water supplies, the air and earth, abusing the basic trust its economic stranglehold over the small community provided by economic default, placing a virtual muzzle on anyone who dared question its activities. And I am still only half way through…more later, COVID-19 lockdown giving me valuable reading time.

Dark Waters

As a filmmaker and writer everything I saw and heard in Dark Waters was pitch perfect for me. Is this the point when an already very, very good filmmaker makes something so significant it and he cannot be ignored? On my one viewing I would say definitely yes. So, how did Todd Haynes, and the cast and crew, not receive any Oscar nominations? The answer to that is unfortunately in the film itself.

Mark Ruffalo is exceptional as the initially unsure advocate (should I, shouldn’t I take this case?) the reluctant hero turning crusading lawyer travelling deeper into the lies and cover up world of Du Pont’s immoral practices, as he takes them on in the courts. The journey is long and far from easy.

Based on the New York Times Magazine’s “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich, the story is real, the deaths associated with teflon and the poisoned waters from chemical spill run-off are countable, coupled to another important fact—the film narrative is so well managed and un-histrionic in its style and delivery that it makes watching dramatic and very affecting.

The mantra told often to us by lecturers in JD units: a lawyer reads, that’s what a lawyer does’ hit home as I watched the many boxes of incriminating documents and records being wheeled into Mark Ruffalo’s (Rob Bilott’s) law offices.

How was Bilott not removed from his firm? It’s to my relief and all our benefit that he kept his position and kept on fighting the actions. A roomful of long applause for all involved.

Europe & Freedom of Movement

As Brexit continues morphing out over the coming months, I think we should begin sharing experiences of what it has been like to live in and freely travel around Europe before our rights disappear. The ‘good’ the young of Britain in particular are about to lose.

Automatic right to be and travel inside Europe without a visa, attend universities, work without foreigner status conditions, to learn languages, share in the life as citizens of Europe with equal rights.

What the Europe Union does so well is not to look towards obvious economic stimulants as bridges to future social, cultural and economic activity, but to social and cultural stimulants, which when aggregated from individual life-changing experiences multiply in exponential societal ways, not only across Europe but across the world. Europe is a civil and cultural force unlike any other.

Here is an early pre-FOM personal European experience, before freedom of movement was instituted, but giving reason to why it is so good for societies and individuals.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ancient Odeon, built by Herod Atticus 161 AD, situated at the foot of the rock of the Acropolis with the Parthenon as a backdrop. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus written up by Vernon Kidd in the New York Times, describing a 1981 Athenian summer component in a plethora of Europe-wide festivals, The Athens Festival awaiting travellers… “plays of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes … presented by the National Theater of Greece, the Amphi-Theater, the Art Theater and Northern Greece State Theater. Tickets: from $1.20 to $6. July 5 to Sept. 25.” As Kidd’s NY times article detailed, Ancient Greek theatre in the ancient Odeon was only a small part of a Europe-wide extravaganza of arts festivals in the summer of 1981.

So, unaware of any of the above, one hot early July ’81 evening I wandered up the road from my Plaka hotel to the Acropolis, this young filmmaker then resident of Hong Kong. As darkness gathered, I sat myself on a wall to take in the dusk scene at a spot overlooking the lit-up Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre. A rehearsal was going on way down below. Intrigued very quickly by what I saw, I hiked down the hill to find out what it was I was watching. A poster outside the Odeon announced the Athens Summer Festival’s showing of The Acharnians by Aristophanes. Had I see an Aristophanes play before? No.

I returned to my hotel and the next day bought a ticket for the play at a ticket outlet – (prices of the day ranging from $1.20 to $6). I found a Penguin translation of the play in a bookshop, read it, and no wiser I have to say set off a night later to see the performance.

The Acharnians was first performed in 426 BC. A strident anti-war play it is credited with being the oldest staged Greek comedy. I didn’t know what to expect because the Penguin translation did not make anything clear. Still, I had seen the rehearsal. That was enough. The play itself would do the rest.

The Odeon theatre is an extraordinary space, but on a hot July summer night it is other-worldly. The night air made translucent by light was alive with what looked like tiny floating tips of flowers, rising in the warm air all throughout the amphitheatre. In jeans, t-shirt, sandals surrounded by Greeks in evening dress I felt a rank outsider. Yet nobody cared.

What truly resonates with me most, nearly forty years later, is how an ancient play, interpreted, performed and directed as it was, was soon so relevant for a 1981 audience. Filled with dance, mime, mask, and music, George Kounis’ (or Kouns’) production lifted me off my seat. This was not a stilted play from Ancient Greece, a production I remembered too well from university productions. The Penguin translation was swept from my mind.

Dicæopolis, a native of Acharnæ and an ex-soldier returns disillusioned from the Persian wars, heartsick at the miseries and stupidities of the conflict. Not shy in making his views known, with earthy gestures he rails against fellow citizens, while a chorus of startled, indignant citizens in white masks, odd hats and fantastic bed square sewn quilt costumes, rush in dance formation from one side of the stage to the other, all to a cacophony of startling music and sound effects, remonstrating with him and each other. The audience was in stitches inside minutes. I didn’t understand a word yet understood everything.

As a writer it is hard to communicate the effect this experience has had on me: the hot July night, the western world’s most ancient comedy, the mime, dance, costume, design and performances, Greeks all around me ‘rolling in aisles’, the old director helped on stage after the performance – I felt as if theatre itself, not only the ancient Greek concept of  ‘spectacle,’ had finally been made clear to me.

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photograph by and courtesy of Berthold Werner 2017

Lee, JFK and Stephen King

It’s tough being a writer in this organised politically-controlled oligarchic world of ours. Publishing is a strategic asset in a stable of assets essential to a well-tuned oligarchic universe. The message whatever it is must be edited. That seems to be the last law of the universe, the one Scientists haven’t yet owned up to.

Try thwarting it and you will be edited out of existence says a footnote on the first page of the Oligarchic Manual. Try beating the system and your Sun will shine no more.

So, I guess even the great Stephen King obeys this largely hidden law of our Oligarchic Universe. (I say great because book sales obviously equate with greatness, right?) It has nothing to do with well-oiled sales machines. Sales = Greatness and vice versa.

So, I went, I must say with hope, to read 11.22.63 by the undoubtedly great Stephen King. And what did I find?

Well, my mother always said: if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all. But when did I ever listen to my mother?

What on earth was King thinking about?

Not the truth clearly. His novel is fiction, okay. Only he put some real people in it, no? Like Lee Harvey. Poor old very dead Lee Harvey. The man who some people keep saying was guiltier than his own imagined sin. Lee Harvey with his Carcano Model 91/38 rifle which he probably couldn’t have hit a barn door with from 100 metres, but somehow reverse-actioned Newtonian physics with a tree blocking his way, hitting a moving target, from how far was it? Killing a President.

Go figure. Many have tried. I don’t need to debate this. To my mind at least if Lee were on the sixth floor of the Book Depository that fate-filled day and fated time, he would have had more chance of hitting Parkland Hospital than the man it is claimed he murdered in the way convention says he committed this crime – the myth now co-signed by author Stephen King.

The Price So Many Are Paying

With the global financial crisis deepening and spreading into communities (aided and abetted by years of political corruption) in recent months the number of workers in Italy who have taken their own lives has risen fast.

Below are some of their stories

See more of these printed in L’Espresso (in Italian) – 13th April 2012

13 April 2012. Sesto, Fiorentina, Firenze. Giuliano V., ex-manager, 42, died by throwing himself under a freight train. Four months before he had lost his position in the marble production sector in Garfagnana. Falling into a deep depression he had tried to create a new life and career without success.

12 April 2012. Treviso. Paolo Tonin, 53, agricultural businessman hanged himself in his business premises. According to his family, the suicide was as a direct result of the difficult economic climate his business had been plunged into.

9 April 2012. Valtiberina, Arezzo, 27, owner of a woodcutting business, killed himself in a forest by connecting a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car. Family and friends said he was overwhelmed by his debts. He had just received a tax bill for 50,000 euros.

5 April 2012. Savona. Vittorio Galasso, independent builder, 52,  hanged himself in the apartment he was renovating. According to friends, he could not go on facing little work and rising debts.  He left a wife and two children of 15 and 17 years.

3 April 2012. Roma. Mario Frasacco, businessman, 59. His aluminium products company failing, workers being laid off, Frasacco shot himself in his business premises. His body was found the morning after by his twenty year old son.

2 April 2012. Roma. Pasqualino Clotilde, artisan, 57, hanged himself in his framing shop. A note explained his reasons: “insurmountable economic problems.” The day before his wife had begun working in a cleaning company to help pay off family debts.

23 March 2012. Cepagatti, Pescara. E.F, businessman, 44 years, hanged himself because he was desperate over the economic situation of his window and door frame company.  His body was found by his company employees.

21 March 2012. Scorrano (Lecce). Antonio Maggio, craftsman, 29, hanged himself after losing his job on an excavation site. With the job he had been supporting his widowed mother. A few days before he lost his job, he received a payment notice for rubbish collection.

9 March 2012. Ginosa Marina (Taranto). Vincenzo Di Tinco, 60, shopkeeper, hanged himself after his bank refused him help. Proprietor of clothing company he was refused a 1,300 euro loan notwithstanding his 40 years in business.

9 March 2012. Noventa di Piave (Venezia). Carpenter, 60, took his own life because delay in receiving payments from clients. His body was found by a co-worker in their work premises.

26 February 2012. Firenze. Businessman, 64, found hanging in his premises, due to economic difficulties.

15 February 2012. Paternò (Catania). Owner, 57, of an  agricultural machinery company, hanged himself in his warehouse. His company had numerous debts.

3 January 2012. Milano. Giancarlo Chiodini, electrician, 64, shot himself in the head in his van parked in front of his work premises. Dedicated to his work, in recent times he had become obsessed by worry over promised contracts that did not materialise and delayed payments.

(translated by this writer)

One Writer’s Journey

I grew up watching Superman, The Cisco Kid, O.S.S., hearing war stories, chasing down moth-eaten army uniforms back when milk arrived in a horse and cart marvelling at the colour style of actual coca leaf sugarpop in Coke bottles blinking at motor cycles Dick Van Dyke falling over a couch cowboy films shot in daylight B/W then coloured nights of my father’s home-grown vegetables, born with words in my mouth – ‘gimme-that’ , ‘how-dare-you’,  ‘what-the-fuck’ –

– ideas as fixed and eternal as the motives for every war, growing into Kidnapped bicycles desert boots Seventy Seven Sunset Strip Disney Land Rear Window Psycho Lawrence of Arabia, the annual anxiety of packing the car at holiday time, each and every moment stilled in memory of the forever mysterious parodies of life or art even if parodies weren’t even an option back then. I knew the Beatles before the Monkees, Bogart before Belmondo, but I can’t say I recall the idea behind the Summer of ’42 before it was a film conjured into a Mad magazine parody or whether it co-existed in the smash crash and kill dinky toy mind of George W. Bush. I believe I’m not alone, even growing more bewildered year on year by the incoherence of images and texts surrounding me from birth arresting my natural river environment in the far southern climes the commercial and cultural ink-blotting over my childhood my natural world a parody of some story my mother told me, those seconds on a baked sidewalk hearing JFK was dead, pink socks on the rock ‘n rollers, moments things events sounds sent to make life even more dangerous curious frightening, a direct result of the industrial military complex, Elvis Presley Chuck Berry even, the jack shit political influences beaten into the worrying shame of death in the world, prejudice, organically connected and woven into a general valueness held dear by so many years on from that day when morality was gunned down in broad daylight.

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