The true story behind the film Dark Waters is a terrifying one, but it's not even horror-related in any way. It's about the willingness of a company to knowingly harm people in the name of profit. While Mark Ruffalo is known for playing an Avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he now portrays a real hero: Robert Bilott, an attorney who learns of a cover-up orchestrated by the chemical company DuPont. For years, DuPont knew that using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a substance that gives Teflon its nonstick qualities, was dangerous for its employees and consumers. Still, it kept its knowledge under wraps, quietly monitoring employee health and dumping its waste into bodies of water.
A Landfill Purchase Starts It All
The story starts with Jim and Della Tennant — a farming couple living in Parkersburg, WV. In the '80s, DuPont wanted to buy 66 acres from them so that it could dump waste onto their land. At first, the Tennants were reluctant to allocate a chunk of their property for a landfill, but Dupont said that the waste only consisted of scrap metal and ash, and so they relented.
But soon a series of disturbing events unfolded. Their daughters wheezed and coughed, prompting the family to move. Disturbingly, their cows grew tumors, went blind, developed green innards, and eventually died. Worried about their cattle, the Tennant family got in touch with Bilott, an attorney at a firm called Taft. While Bilott often represented big chemical companies, he looked into their troubles because they knew his grandma. After sifting through years worth of DuPont's documents, Bilott came across a letter to the EPA about PFOA, which is also called C8.
DuPont's Cover-Up Lasts Decades
In use since 1951, C8 is a soap-like substance that gives Teflon its nonstick quality and can be found in carpeting, floss, cosmetics, and waterproof clothes. And it was in the creek on the Tennant family's land. Bilott eventually pieced together that DuPont was aware of C8's dangers while operating a cover-up.
The company discreetly monitored the health of employees in contact with the substance, discovering that it was in high concentrations in their blood. 66 acres had children with birth defects, prompting DuPont to remove female workers from direct contact with C8. Workers exposed to the chemical were also three times more likely than the average person to get prostate cancer. Further studies showed that C8 was linked to several types of cancer in lab animals — DuPont had known this since the '90s.
The Tennant farm was part of DuPont's cover-up. The company needed to dump C8-laced waste somewhere. But C8 impacted more than just DuPont employees. For years, the company had dumped Teflon waste into the ocean and bodies of water in the Ohio River Valley. Testing its dumping waters in the '80s, DuPont found that water sources in the towns of Lubeck, WV, and Little Hocking, OH, were all affected. The company bought out Lubeck's well field and built a new one, destroying unanalyzed samples from the old well. It created a test method that underestimated C8 levels. But by then, the world was exposed to C8. It was in air, water, and food all over. Chances are, it's coursing through your blood now, even in trace amounts. In the '90s, the company thought about switching out C8, but products that used it brought in too much money — 66 acres.
DuPont Faces Legal Action — Pretty Much Indefinitely
The EPA would file a lawsuit against Dupont. After the Tennants settled, Bilott also filed a class-action suit against the company, representing 80,000 plaintiffs who were exposed to C8-contaminated water. Because DuPont was an economic anchor in the community, it was difficult to take it down. The company eventually paid the EPA $16.5 million and those on Bilott's lawsuit up to $374 million. It further pledged $70 million to health and education efforts to help affected residents. It cleaned areas where C8 exceeded 0.4 parts per billion, but even this number could be 100 times too much. DuPont stopped using C8 66 acres, but continued to use similar chemicals in production. And as of 2016, there were over 3,000 personal injury lawsuits against DuPont.