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A new film called Dark Waters chronicles a BigLaw partner’s 18-year environmental fight against the DuPont chemical company.
The film portrays Robert Bilott of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, who represented large chemical companies before he was approached by a West Virginia farmer who thought DuPont was responsible for his dying cattle.
Before taking on the new client, Bilott helped companies navigate environmental regulations and the so-called Superfund law governing cleanups of hazardous waste.
The movie is based on a New York Times profile of Bilott.
Bilott is played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie, and his attorney wife is played by Anne Hathaway.
Dark Waters was shot in many locations where real-life events took place, including Bilott’s office.
“I really think that was incredibly powerful to have the filming actually occur in the offices where a lot of the story took place and with the families that were involved,” Bilott told NPR. “There were several of the folks there in the community in West Virginia that participated.”
At the center of the legal fight is a chemical called PFOA that at one time was used to make Teflon. PFOA sludge was being dumped in a landfill that drained into the farmer’s property, according to the New York Times article.
Although DuPont no longer uses PFOA, “It’s still out there,” Ruffalo told NPR. “It’s in our blood. It’s in the blood of nearly every living creature on the planet.”
Bilott told the Washington Post that the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist until 1970, and the first federal statute on the review of chemicals didn’t come out until 1976.
PFOA, he said, was “out there for decades well before the regulations came in. And when these new laws came out in the 70s, they focused on really the new chemicals, things that were made from that point going forward.
“And for existing chemicals, like PFOA, it was up to the companies that were making them and using them to alert the EPA if they had information suggesting there was a substantial risk of harm. … And here, we had a situation where there were repeated studies coming out showing problems, and, unfortunately, that information was not given to the EPA.”