Ohio Lawyer Makes History and a Movie
There is a chemical called PFOA. It never degrades. It exists forever. It’s linked with birth defects, kidney cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease. It was developed in 1947 for 3M’s Scotch Guard products, it was then sold to DuPont for its Teflon nonstick pan coating. It’s now in the blood of every living creature on earth, from animals secluded on wildlife refuges in the middle of the ocean…to you.
Robert Bilott, corporate environmental defense lawyer and graduate of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, didn’t know any of this in 1998 when a farmer from West Virginia called his office.
He knows it now. So does environmental super hero and three-time Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, who produces and stars as Bilott in the upcoming thriller Dark Waters.
“The first I had any inkling of the remote possibility that there would be a film associated with this was in 2016 after the New York Times magazine article came out,” Bilott says after a recent visit to Gateway Film Center for a screening with Moritz students.
“I actually got a call from Mark Ruffalo. He had read the article and was just struck by the magnitude of the contamination story and by the fact that he had never heard about it,” Bilott remembers. “He felt compelled to find a way to bring the story out to a bigger audience.”
Familiar with Erin Brockovich-style films where drama is as important as truth, Bilott was interested but hesitant.
“My objective was to do what we could do to serve our clients and make sure this public health threat was addressed,” he says. He and Ruffalo talked for hours that first day, and in the end, Bilott was convinced that he’d found a partner.
“It became clear that he was really focused on bringing this out as a movie for the right reasons and doing it the right way,” Bilott says. “Not some over sensationalized, dramatic, fist-pounding type event, but really to portray events and the people as they are. I respect him for doing that.”
Along with revered director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There), Ruffalo and a strong ensemble descended on Cincinnati for filming. Bilott was on hand.
“I was fairly well involved,” he says. “I got to consult, and a lot of the filming occurred in Cincinnati in our law firm, so I was able to assist and provide input. It was a great experience.”
In fact, Bilott wasn’t the only participant consulted.
“The entire team was dedicated to making sure they could understand what the real impact was on the real people. Not only was I asked questions and able to give input, some of the Tennant family as well, and the Kigers,” he says of the involvement of two families directly affected by the DuPont chemical malfeasance. “There were a lot of folks they consulted with to make sure they understood how this impacted the real people.”
He’s pleased with the result and impressed with what the filmmakers accomplished.
“As a film having to condense 20 years into two hours, I think they did a fantastic job in capturing the essence of what was going on, the impact on the real people, of seeing what was going on not only at the farm in that community, but also at the law firm and the company,” he says. “It was a lot of complicated information and I think they did a great job conveying that in the most understandable way.”
Bilott discusses how the lawsuit really evolved over time.
“When I first took on the case, I had no understanding that this would involve some unregulated chemical,” he says. “It seemed like a fairly straightforward case: something was leaking into a landfill. It seemed like something we would be able to get to the bottom of pretty quickly. It wasn’t until digging into the internal documents that we realized this was something that affected not just this farmer, but the entire community.”
And later came the big revelation and impetus for getting the information out to the public in as big a way as possible: “Realizing that it was in the blood of every person on the planet and no one seemed to know about it.”
“Ever since then I’ve been trying the best I can to get that information out to other people,” Bilott says. “Most people know about Flint, Michigan. That was one water supply with this chemical lead. Here we’re talking about the contamination of water all over the country, all over the globe, and the contamination of the blood of virtually every living thing on the planet. And yet most people have never heard of this chemical.”
“I could not pick a more perfect person to have done this,” Bilott says. “He is a fantastic person and really, honestly, genuinely concerned about this issue and wanting to do this the right way. That entire group was just a phenomenal team to work with and I just couldn’t have been happier.”
Dark Waters opens this weekend.