DuPont’s Worst Nightmare: “Dark Waters” Speaks the Truth About PFAS Science

November 19, 2019 | 9:16 am
Mary Cybulski/Focus Features
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The image accompanying the 2016 New York Times piece, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” has stuck with me since I first read it. The contrast of a man in a dark suit with darkened eyes and a grave face standing on a West Virginia farm on a wintry day is chilling. Rob Bilott’s expression in that photo captures so much of the PFAS story. It’s the face of a man tired of knowing the truth and not seeing the proportional response to that knowledge from those with the power and responsibility to protect people.

It is no surprise that this article, and the story of Rob Bilott’s fight to hold DuPont accountable for poisoning a West Virginia community with “forever chemicals,” has been brought to the big screen in Dark Waters which opens this week. The storyline tracks closely to the typical underdog tale with a few twists. Bilott is the underdog even though he’s a corporate defense attorney. He courageously takes on a huge legal battle with one of his firm’s clients. He works tirelessly in search of the truth. He spends a good chunk of his career unraveling the tangled threads of corporate disinformation and manipulation of the science behind Teflon’s ingredients. But even after fighting for over 20 years to expose the truth, the underdog has still not seen a total victory. He worked on behalf of the community to win the settlement that jumpstarted a much-needed large-scale health study (the findings of which have been used to support government assessments). But exposing the truth and handing in the independent scientific studies isn’t always enough, especially when contending with moneyed interests. Because of the disinformation campaigns of DuPont, 3M and captured government agencies, PFAS are still unregulated and companies like DuPont are still denying the harm and shirking responsibility to clean them up. This film is a wake up call for America- it’s time for action on PFAS.

Just because a fact is inconvenient doesn’t make it any less true

We included Bilott’s story as a case study in our Disinformation Playbook last year because DuPont and 3M’s efforts were a classic use of “The Fake,” a play in which companies conduct counterfeit science or bury inconvenient science altogether in order to evade regulation.

And now, predictably, DuPont and the larger chemical industry is also criticizing the film by saying it’s not based on facts. That’s rich coming from a company that literally hid the facts for decades in order to manufacture its own convenient truth. It turns out that Rob Bilott and communities across the country exposing the truth about these chemicals are still DuPont’s worst nightmare. It’s proven in the amount of energy the industry is putting into attempting to deny the real events underlying the film.

The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association has created a website called ‘Truth About Dark Waters’ and even put resources into the development of several short videos claiming that the film ignores the truth and insults Ohio Valley residents and their way of life. But, despite claiming to be a site with the facts, it offers no sources to refute the storyline of the movie. And in a feeble attempt to take down Rob Bilott’s new book, Exposure, it cherry picks a few industry-funded studies to back up its claim that exposure to PFAS isn’t harmful to human health. But as we know, scientific conclusions aren’t drawn from a single study, they are reached by understanding the weight of the evidence. In the case of PFOA and PFOS, there is a robust body of independent science showing that exposure is associated with effects on “pretty much almost every system that you can think of.”

“They want to show the world there’s no use fighting”

Mark Ruffalo, who plays Bilott in the film, told Christiane Amanpour in an interview this week that the way in which the game is rigged touches all industries, from pharmaceuticals to food to fossil fuels, “it’s everywhere.” We found the same thing as we collected case studies for the Disinformation Playbook. By pushing back against inconvenient science and sowing disinformation about products, companies can ultimately delay or otherwise obstruct science-based policies intended to protect the public. The power wielded by these companies as they bankroll members of congress, infiltrate government agencies, spread disinformation to policymakers and the public, and fight like hell to avoid accountability is oppressive. As Bilott says in the film, “they want to show the world there’s no use fighting.”

Since the film’s protagonist helped uncover this coverup, PFAS have been found in the bodies of 99% of Americans tested and in the drinking water and groundwater all over the country, around industrial sites, airports, and military sites.

PFAS contamination has been found at military sites across 37 states (Source: UCS 2018).

Ruffalo described this story as the “biggest corporate crime and coverup in American history” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week, and who is impacted most? A newly released UCS report found that communities facing PFAS contamination are more likely to be low-income communities or communities of color and in addition to already dealing with disproportionate social, economic, and environmental burdens they are also dealing with high levels of PFAS in their water. For too long, chemical companies like DuPont have gotten away with knowingly poisoning Americans and keeping the science quiet.

Bilott’s work is paying off

The good news is that this film is coming out as Congress negotiates the final language of the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, which will hopefully contain the strong provisions from each chamber to phase out the use of PFAS in firefighting foam, halt discharges into waterways, require reporting of PFAS releases, and add it to the list of hazardous substances under the Superfund law requiring polluters to pay for cleanup. Congress has also been engaging in strong oversight of EPA and even of the manufacturing companies, holding several hearings over the past year, including one that asked 3M, DuPont, and Chemours tough questions about denying the science and how they plan to clean up their colossal mess.

There’s a lot to learn from the Parkersburg, WV story told in Dark Waters, but to me, the most important theme is that people armed with science are immensely powerful and cannot be stopped.

Dark Waters is out in select theaters Starting November 22nd and across the country on December 6th. Be sure to find it in a theater near you and then join the fight.