US attorney Rob Bilott started his career working with big corporate clients to help them comply with the law, but when a tired farmer from West Virginia showed up at his office with stacks of video tapes documenting suspicious deaths in his cow herd, Rob’s focus changed. It soon became clear that the town’s local corporate giant, the materials manufacturer DuPont, had something to do with it.
The company was producing products that contained a group of chemicals with the acronym PFAS, Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, so-called ‘forever chemicals’ because they simply don’t break down.
“Unfortunately, once they get out there, they tend to stick, they tend to stay in the environment,” Rob laments. “They don’t break down. They get into the air, they get into the soil, they get into the water, and, most concerningly, they get into living things. 99% of the people on this planet [will have traces of PFAS chemicals in their bloodstream].
“It’s now being found in polar bears and Arctic ice caps. [The chemicals] don’t break apart, they don’t break down. They stay there, particularly these ones with eight carbons like PFOA and PFOS, they can stay there for thousands, if not millions of years before they start to break down.”
In the 80s, DuPont bought several acres of the farmer’s land, and named the area Dry Run Landfill after the creek snaking through the land that also served to water his herd. It transpired that chemical waste discharged into the creek was harming his cows. The farmer, Wilbur Earl Tennant, filmed the simple autopsies he performed on the dead bovines revealing organs in a very disturbing state. He found blackened teeth and organs like the liver, heart, stomachs, kidneys and gall bladder all carrying unusual dark discolorations and textures. It would be an understatement to say Mr Tennant didn’t like what he discovered and was certain that chemical pollution was to blame.
Rob Bilott didn’t like it either and decided to take on DuPont, filing a Federal lawsuit in 1999. This sparked a decades-long campaign to open the eyes of the world to the dangers of these chemicals – particularly PFOA, a ‘forever chemical’.
Those of us of a certain age will be very familiar with Teflon and Scotchgard. Whether we marvelled at the non-stick coating we found on our pans in the 80s and 90s or celebrated the then-groundbreaking new stain and water repellent technology for our coats and boots, these materials appeared to have few drawbacks.
Sadly, now we know better. As a result of a class-action brought by Rob’s law firm Taft against DuPont on behalf of those whose local water supply was contaminated by PFOA, the ‘C8 Science Panel’ collected blood samples from almost 70,000 people and, after seven years, concluded that PFOA exposure could be linked to six specific conditions, including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. It was Rob’s tenacious work on behalf of his clients that brought about this evidence.
“It has been 24 years that we’ve been working on trying to find ways to get this information out to the regulators and scientists so that steps can be taken to protect people from this,” he says. “But that was a long process – there was a lot of resistance. This was information that was purposely being covered up and withheld. Believe it or not, even despite the information that we’ve finally been able to start to get out to the rest of the world, these companies are still fighting this, are still trying to deny the science that now exists, so the fight goes on.”
A long, public legal battle can take its toll on one’s health and relationships, so Rob definitely needed the twin pillars of faith and family to take on the fight.
“So many things had to line up just the right way. One of the most important, of course, was being fortunate enough to be married to my wife, Sarah – just an incredible person who is very faith-grounded, grew up in the Catholic Church and is extremely positive and focused on that. She had been working at a big law firm before our first child was born, and decided then to stay home for the next period while we were raising the kids. But she knew what it was like to be working at a big firm and having a case like this. But I think she was, and is, just a special person who was able to see that this was going to be helpful to so many people – if we’re able to get this out and to prevail here. And my kids, all three sons, grew up and lived throughout this process and they’re a positive testament to that.”
Rob’s David versus Goliath battle piqued the interest of actor Mark Ruffalo, himself a passionate environmental campaigner. He stars as Rob in the 2019 film Dark Waters.
“Mark Ruffalo reached out to me back in 2016 after he read an article in the New York Times Magazine that was summarising this whole story. He was really shocked that something like this could have been going on in the United States where we’re supposed to be on the cutting edge of all these regulations and science. How could this be going on without anybody knowing about it?
“He teamed up with the folks at Participant Media because I wanted to make sure if this was getting done, that it was going to be done in a way that would help bring the truth in the story to the public and that it wouldn’t be over-sensationalised. Director Todd Haynes did a fantastic job in taking a story that spans over 20 years with a lot of science, a lot of legal issues, a lot of complicated stuff, and
condensed it into two hours in a way that really conveys to people what happened.”
So, to Flame. Rob is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Flame Youth Congress at the OVO Arena, Wembley, on Saturday 4 March, where he’ll speak to 10,000 young Catholics about this important topic of environmental justice. Young people are not only characteristically strong in faith but also in upholding matters of social justice.
“I’m just really looking forward to being able to speak to young people. I speak to different college groups in universities across the US, because these are the people that have the passion and that are going to make the change – they’re going to see this through. They’re much more attuned to a lot of these issues than folks in our generation and I love to see that passion. I love to see people who realise that they can make a difference. One person standing up, speaking out, saying, “you know what, we can change this – it can happen.” And I’m hoping that folks come away at least looking at this story, realising that here you had a farmer in West Virginia who went up against one of the biggest corporations on the planet, who went up against the entire US regulatory system, the legal system, the scientific process, and was able to actually start something that is now changing, that the laws are changing internationally, that there are changes just from that individual standing up and speaking out.”
Rob Bilott was speaking to us ahead of Flame from the offices of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio.