Toxic True Crime

The drama of Dark Waters doesn’t get any more real-life

By Katie O'Reilly

November 23, 2019


Photo courtesy of Focus Features

The idea for a Hollywood film about a class of chemicals came in 2016, when actor Mark Ruffalo called up Rob Bilott, a lawyer in Cincinnati. The Avengers star, an anti-fracking activist, had just read an article in The New York Times Magazine chronicling Bilott’s 20-year battle against the chemical company DuPont—the maker of Teflon, a synthetic coating that makes pans nonstick and rain gear waterproof. Many of those products contain PFAS, toxic chemicals that have contaminated US water supplies since the 1940s.

Ruffalo envisioned a marquee movie that would alert the broader public to the toxics lurking in their day-to-day lives, with Bilott’s legal epic at the center of the story. That story hit screens in November with the release of Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes and produced by Ruffalo, who plays Bilott.

Bilott was schooled in environmental law, but he never set out to become the next Erin Brockovich. At the start of the film, we find him defending chemical companies at a corporate law firm. A few months shy of making partner in 1998, he gets a call from Wilbur Tennant, a West Virginia farmer who is convinced that runoff from a nearby DuPont chemical plant is killing his cattle. Bilott’s Appalachian grandmother (“Grammer”) has given Tennant his number, a detail that in part convinces the attorney to take on the case. Bilott thus finds himself in a legal brawl with one of the biggest chemical corporations on the planet, and in the process exposes a nefarious conspiracy leading to water-contamination lawsuits, which DuPont eventually pays nearly $700 million to settle.

In Tennant’s hometown of Parkersburg, people revere DuPont—the company funds the best jobs, parks, and schools. Through plausible deniability, DuPont keeps EPA regulators sitting on their hands while putting tens of thousands of people in Parkersburg at an increased risk of cancer and thyroid issues linked to perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, exposure. (PFOA is one of the nearly 5,000 PFAS.)

Ruffalo’s Bilott is an understated attorney skilled in the meticulous scouring of technical reports. He learns that company scientists concerned about worker exposure to PFOA tested the chemical on lab animals. When the tests led to cancer-ridden rats and dead dogs, corporate opted to halt and bury the testing. Ultimately, Bilott discovers dangerously high concentrations of PFOA in Parkersburg’s drinking water—and has to confront the hard fact that PFOA and its “forever chemical” cousins lurk in the bloodstreams of virtually every American.

The film is powered by compelling performances and a fast-paced script but is not without simplistic tropes contrasting rich men in a gilded tower with life-drained townsfolk. There are also some overwrought moments—happy-go-lucky schoolchildren zip around Parkersburg on bikes in an early scene, but later, heavy-handed close-ups reveal their black, water-poisoned teeth. Bilott has his most pivotal epiphany in a rainy restaurant parking lot. “The system is rigged!” he shouts at his beleaguered wife (played by Anne Hathaway). “They want us to think it will protect us; only we protect us!”

According to the real-life Bilott, the melodrama is appropriate. “I used to assume that when we turned our tap on, it was safe—that folks were out there taking care of us,” he told Sierra. “It was eye-opening to discover that regulators depend on and look to the chemical industry to provide accurate information.”

The EPA has yet to ban PFAS. As Dark Waters reinforces, we’re part of a system that encourages corporations to profit from suffering. The film’s message is clear: The case against PFAS is unlikely to be closed anytime soon. 

This article appeared in the January/February 2020 edition with the headline "Toxic True Crime."