Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky lawyer Robert Bilott, who graduated from Fairborn High School, is the focus of the film, Dark Waters. PROVIDED

Meet the local lawyer who took on DuPont and now is portrayed in a Mark Ruffalo movie

The movie about the real-life, two-decade-long legal odyssey of Bilott and lawsuits against chemical giant DuPont goes to wide release nationwide this week after an early release in parts of the country. It has been compared to the films “Erin Brockovich” and “All the President’s Men,” both of which portray real people who doggedly made cases against the powerful. In “Erin Brockovich,” a legal clerk built a pollution case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. In “All the President’s Men,” two Washington Post reporters exposed a bungled burglary and coverup that led to the resignation of President Nixon.

The Fairborn High School Class of 1983 graduate in 2017 settled about 3,500 lawsuits against DuPont for $670 million brought by people who sued over illnesses from exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a nonbiodegradable chemical that was used in making nonstick cookware coatings like Teflon.

Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich about the prolonged legal battle by Bilott, who at first was reluctant because as a partner with the prestigious Cincinnati law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, he defended chemical companies, rather than suing them.

Although Bilott grew up in the Dayton area with his father, Ray Bilott, stationed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, he felt a family tug when in 1998 a West Virginia cattle farmer, Wilbur Tennant, asked him to represent him because more than 150 of his animals had died in gruesome ways.

The family of Bilott’s mother, Emily Bilott, lives in Parkersburg, “so we would have the opportunity to go visit her family frequently, back in West Virginia,” he said in an interview with this news organization. “It was during one of those visits, for example, that we spent time on one of the farms right next to the Tennant property, and that’s what led to Mr. Tennant calling me decades later.

Bilott, who is played by Ruffalo, used a court order to obtain more than 100,000 pages of documents, and learned PFOA was claimed to have caused the cattle poisoning.

Also at risk from tainted drinking water were about 70,000 in West Virginia and Ohio, in an area around Parkersburg known as the Mid-Ohio Valley. 

Drinking water now is being tested for PFOA, and various entities, such as water companies, have been filing their own lawsuits. One dangerous aspect of such chemicals is they never break down, and accumulate in the bodies of people and animals — leading Bilott and others to call them “forever chemicals.”

“It’s not not just one community and their water, or one farm,” he said. “It’s all over the country, and all over the world now.”

Bilott in October released a book telling the story from his perspective, “Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont.”

Bilott’s parents still live in Dayton, and his sister and brother-in-law, Beth and Terry Lieberman, live in Xenia. Bilott noted some similar chemicals have been found in Dayton-area water, believed to be from firefighting foam.

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PFOA and related chemicals were in use since the early 1950s, two decades before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created. And when the first law came out in 1976, it “really focused on new chemicals made from that point going forward,” Bilott said. “For existing (chemicals) like these, that were already out there, the law essentially relied on the companies using or making the chemicals to alert to EPA if there was information indicating a substantial risk to human health and the environment.

“But unfortunately, what we saw here was the company repeatedly making the decision not to tell them. And they eventually got sued, for withholding that information.”

DuPont, asked to comment, released a three-paragraph statement:

“Safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont. We are – and have always been – committed to upholding the highest standards for the well-being of our employees, our customers and the communities in which we operate. As a science-based company, DuPont is innovating in all facets of our business – in our policies and protocols as well as our products. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.”

“Although DuPont does not make the chemicals in question, we agree that further action needs to be taken. That’s why we are leading the industry by supporting federal legislation and science-based regulatory efforts to address these chemicals. We also have announced a series of commitments around our limited use of PFAS, including eliminating the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams from our facilities and granting royalty-free licenses to those seeking to use innovative PFAS remediation technologies.

“Unfortunately, while seeking to thrill and entertain, this movie misrepresents things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science. In some cases, the film depicts wholly imagined events. We have always – and will continue to – work with those in the scientific, not-for-profit and policy communities who demonstrate a serious and sincere desire to improve our health, our communities and our planet.”

Bilott, who is still a partner at the Taft law firm, said he hopes the film will “encourage the folks that are leading our regulatory agencies and legislators to take actions that protect us from it.”

It’s ironic he has spent his legal career on this focus, because, “the one class I remember from high school that I was never very good at was chemistry,” he said.

On the other hand, “I was active in the journalism program there at Fairborn High School, the yearbook, which was very helpful in later years with writing, with law school, and eventually writing the book, Exposure.”

MORE: Hollywood’s ‘Dark Waters’ calls attention to water contamination

Asked about the film’s accuracy, Bilott said, “I think they did a great job in trying to put the information together in a way that conveys the essence of the basic story of what transpired. Obviously, things have to be condensed, and things have to be modified a bit in order to put it into a visual form like that, for people to understand, and to do it in two hours. You’re talking about 20 years. But I think they did a fantastic job in handling that.”

He hopes when people see Dark Waters or read the book, “that they are inspired to know even one person, like Wilbur Tennant, can make tremendous change.”

Meanwhile, other lawsuits are being filed, seeking to prompt companies that make such chemicals study and reveal the dangers of the hundreds of other chemicals in the PFOS family, to which PFOA belongs.

“It took years to dig out what was known about that one (PFOA),” Bilott said. “And I don’t think we should be spending years like that to learn about what these other chemicals can do to us. And at a minimum, the companies that are exposing them to us in the meantime ought to be paying for those studies.”

MORE: Mark Ruffalo movie filmed in Hamilton neighborhood opens

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