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 in recent times.

This searing study of how greed drives so much economic activity in America, Robert Bilott’s story was first revealed to me when I recently saw the film Dark Waters – a Todd Hayes (directed) and Mark Ruffalo (produced and acted) film, well worthy of several nominations in this year Hollywood awards round. It received none. I think we get the picture why.

Bilott tells us the whole story. It begins his ‘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 \showed up at his office carrying a mountain of evidence.

What Rob Bilott discovered demonstrates 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. 

This story of corporate harm shows the casual, arrogant and 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 settle, following an independent scientific investigation into the harm done by a chemical PFOA, used for many products, famously in Teflon, gathering huge worldwide profit source and spinner for Du Pont. 

It took years for results from an exhaustive scientific study of the blood samples of nearly 70,000 people in the immediate and surrounding areas, to come back with findings of clear probable cause links to several major life threatening and life-altering diseases and conditions. Du Pont ruined natural water and piped-water supplies meaning that many were already suffering, some dying, from directly associated diseases and conditions. 

A jury finally finds for a class civil action against the company – who put up a fierce and at times devious public relations & legal defence – the plaintiffs awarded a 670 million dollar settlement against a corporate giant. Du Pont appealed and appealed then in the face of the unshifting evidence folded and accepted the decision. 

This ‘environmental crime’ was aided and abetted by the EPA who worked in tandem with Du Pont to obfuscate key facts of a chemical dumping program from the public, Du Pont carrying on its harmful activities for years in plain sight, abusing the basic trust its economic stranglehold over the small trusting community. As the town’s main employer, Du Pont had the cold, while knowing PFOA was an extremely dangerous substance for all life forms. 

In summary, this is a fine book and a 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 it is for anyone who believes that honest and accountable corporate activities are needed in a properly managed legal environment, held to decnet norms created in a 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 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.