Chris Sullivan reviews a new film exploring corporate destruction and greed and the tenacity of lawyers and litigants to achieve accountability and justice.
Dark Waters is thoroughly absorbing, undiluted true-life legal thriller. Directed by Todd Hayne and written by Mario Correa and Matthew Cannahan, it tells the story of a principled lawyer, Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his fight against chemical giant DuPont.
Bilott built his legal career defending big chemical companies, including DuPont, Thiokol and Bee Chemical, but all this changed when an angry farmer Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp), a friend and neighbour of Bilott’s grandmother, drops into his office and demands representation against DuPont.
He claims that the Washington Works plant next door, owned by DuPont, has poisoned his land with chemical waste. He brings with him boxes of photographs and videotapes. From these, Bilottt could see a large pipe running into his stream emitting green bubbling liquid.
The farmer had tried to find local legal representation but, as DuPont owned most of the town, its lawyers, politicians and journalists shunned him.
Sickened by Tennant’s photographs, Bilott visits Parkersburg where he sees children with black teeth, the remains of cows whose internal organs are swollen and deformed and a graveyard containing 90% of the farmer’s herd. Incensed, he rolls up his sleeves and – to the horror of his wife and colleagues – decides to take on DuPont. It is its billion-dollar product, Teflon, and its carcinogenic ingredient C8 which is the cause of the devastation.
The water-resistant coating was used in fast food wrappers, waterproof clothing, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, carpet, dental floss, cosmetics and hundreds of other products. It soon became clear that the corporation was entirely aware of and had spent a fortune trying to cover up the disastrous effects of producing C8.
As early as the 1970s, DuPont knew that two out of the seven babies born to employees of its Teflon Division had eye and facial deformities. Another laboratory study indicated possible DNA damage, while a study of its workers linked exposure with prostate cancer. DuPont did not make this information public. Knowing this, it went ahead and bought the land next to Tennant’s farm and used it as a landfill for its toxic waste. This was Bilott’s most important discovery.
Between 1951 and 2003, the Washington Works plant dumped, poured and released more than 1.7 million pounds of C8, according to a 2004 study by ChemRisk Inc., that ended up in the water piped into the Ohio River, in the soil through landfill and in the air through smokestacks. To date, the chemical has been found in drinking water in 27 US states.
For more than 20 years, Bilott has filed lawsuits against DuPont on behalf of plaintiffs from West Virginia, litigating against its hazardous dumping of chemical waste that has caused many cases of cancers, thyroid disease, colitis and birth defects. Litigation continues to this day.
Not Just DuPont
Bilott is not alone in fighting against the crimes of multinational corporations. In 2018, former school groundskeeper and pest controller Dewayne Johnson took on agrochemical corporation Monsanto on the grounds that he he developed cancer after using its herbicide glyphosate. Marketed as ‘Roundup’ since 1974, Monsanto claimed it was a technological advance that could exterminate almost every weed known to man without damaging humans, wildlife or the environment.
Roundup, became the world’s most commonly used weedkiller and made the company billions. Johnson had been told that the product was “safe enough to drink” but still wore protective gear. After a few years of intense skin irritation, he discovered that glyphosate was carcinogenic.
After a landmark case that saw Johnson’s lawyers use scientific research that Monsanto (now owed by pharmaceutical giant Bayer) was aware of but had completely ignored, Johnson was $250 million in punitive damages and $39.2 million for losses.
Across the US, thousands of cancer patients are now suing Monsanto which, lawyers argued, had “long smothered evidence of its popular weedkiller’s cancer risks”.
“They have been hiding for years and getting away with it,” Johnson said. “They have to pay the price for not being honest and putting people’s health at risk for the sake of making a profit.”
Recently, in one of the biggest trials of its kind, the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, and its owners, the Sackler family, are offering to settle more than 2,000 lawsuits for $10-12 billion. These state that the company is responsible for starting the current opioid crisis that has claimed more than 400,000 lives from 1999 to 2017.
“The Sackler family built a multi-billion-dollar drug empire based on addiction,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in May 2019. Amazingly, more people died of overdoses in 2017 than were killed by AIDS, firearms or car crashes in any single year in the US and more than all the US military personnel who ended up dead during the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
Today, too many major corporations are still causing personal or environmental damage and attempting to cover it up.
None of these legal cases would have been fought and won if it wasn’t for the work of diligent lawyers who put their clients first however humble and small they were. As the character of Tom Terp, head of the Taft law firm that employs Billot, explains in Dark Waters to one of his employees who questions wasting the firm’s money chasing such a huge corporation as DuPont for the sake of a few beleaguered West Virginian farmers: “Some of us became lawyers to do some good and uphold the system not just to make money”.
And there’s the rub. Many people become lawyers with good intentions, some work for corporations such as DuPont and Monsanto, intending to create products to help make lives better. But, when it goes wrong, too often they are seduced by money and basic human decency is crushed underfoot. This is the underlying message of this excellent film.
‘Dark Waters’ is in cinema now