In 1998, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant contacted corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott, as he believed pollution from a landfill next to his home was responsible for killing 280 of his cows. In the '80s, chemical giant DuPont purchased the land from Tennant, which included a creek that ran through the farm and into the Ohio River.
Naturally, Tennant's cattle drank from the creek — and became increasingly sick, until they either died from disease or Tennant had to put them down to end their suffering.
At the time, Bilott couldn't have imagined the decades-long conspiracy he was about to uncover, and the scandalous true story comes to the big screen in DARK WATERS, starring Mark Ruffalo. The drama opens in limited release today and may expand to an AMC near you in the coming weeks. But before you head to the theatre, learn more about the Tennant case and how Bilott's findings led to one of the most significant class-action lawsuits in the history of environmental law.
The First Discovery
When Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo in DARK WATERS) agreed to take Tennant's case, he was a corporate defense attorney — he represented companies like DuPont. As he began his research, Bilott discovered that DuPont buried an unregulated chemical, known as C8, in waste drums along the banks of the Ohio River, including the "non-hazardous landfill" on the purchased Tennant property.
The company implemented these disposal practices before the first environmental laws were written, and because the chemical wasn't categorized as toxic by the EPA, DuPont was in the clear.
What Is C8?
In 1938, a DuPont lab worker accidentally created Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a chemical with nonstick properties. In 1945, the company patented PTFE, named "Teflon," which was used to coat pots and pans. Within just a few years on the market, Teflon proved to be a gold mine for DuPont, and in 1951, they "improved" the material with Perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) acid — named C8.
C8, another laboratory-formed chemical, was used to smooth out the lumpiness of freshly manufactured Teflon, and its popularity quickly spread to fast food wrappers, waterproof clothing, electrical cables and pizza boxes.
With eight carbon molecules, C8 is an extremely durable compound that escapes into the air easily and doesn't biodegrade — which means if C8 is inhaled or ingested, the chemical can enter a person's bloodstream and continue to accumulate if they're consistently exposed.
Did DuPont Know the Dangers?
Once Bilott realized C8 was unregulated and potentially dangerous, he expanded his search into DuPont's records — he combed through millions (yes, millions) of internal documents dating back to the early 1950s, when C8 was first added to Teflon. The company's own tests revealed the risks of C8 exposure. They watched their employees get sick; two pregnant women on the line gave birth to babies with birth defects. Yet, DuPont continued to use — and dump — the chemical.
20 Years to Justice
Bilott found evidence that DuPont not only leaked the chemical into the Ohio River, but they did so knowing the health risks. At least six public water systems in West Virginia and Ohio showed toxic levels of C8, including the system in Tennant's community. Wilbur and his wife, both of whom got cancer, settled with DuPont for an undisclosed amount — but what about the upward of 70,000 other people exposed to C8 through their drinking water?
We won't spoil all of the details of DARK WATERS, but suffice to say, Mark Ruffalo's Robert Bilott will have a long, uphill battle for justice for all. Find showtimes and get your tickets to the drama today.