Lawyer portrayed in a Hollywood film to speak at Flame

A human rights lawyer, portrayed by Hollywood star Mark Ruffallo in the 2019 film Dark Waters, is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Flame Youth Conference on Saturday 4 March. He gave the following interview to CBCEW from his office in Cincinnati, Ohio.

US Attorney Rob Bilott began his career helping large corporate clients comply with the law, but when a weary West Virginia farmer showed up at his office with stacks of videotapes documenting suspicious deaths in his herd of cows, Rob’s life changed Focus. It quickly became clear that the city’s local corporate giant, materials manufacturer DuPont, had something to do with it.

The company made products that contained a group of chemicals acronym PFAS, Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, called “Forever Chemicals” because they just don’t break down.

“Unfortunately, once they’re out there, they get stuck in the area,” Rob said. “They don’t collapse. They get into the air, they get into the soil, they get into the water and, most worryingly, they get into living things. 99% of the people on this planet [will have traces of PFAS chemicals in their bloodstream].

“It is now found in polar bears and arctic ice caps. [The chemicals] don’t break apart, they don’t collapse. They stay there, especially those eight carbon ones like PFOA and PFOS, they can stay there for thousands if not millions of years before they start to break down.”

David versus Goliath

In the 1980’s DuPont bought several acres of land from the farmer and named the area Dry Run Landfill after the creek that meandered through the land and also served to water his herd. It turned out that chemical waste dumped into the creek harmed his cows. The farmer, Wilbur Earl Tennant, filmed the simple autopsies he performed on the dead cattle and revealed organs in a very disturbing condition. He found blackened teeth and organs such as the liver, heart, stomachs, kidneys, and gallbladder, all of which had unusual dark discolorations and textures. It would be an understatement to say that Mr. Tennant did not like what he discovered and was certain that chemical pollution was to blame.

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Rob Bilott didn’t like it either and decided to take it on with DuPont and filed a federal lawsuit in 1999. This sparked a decades-long campaign to open the world’s eyes to the dangers of these chemicals — specifically PFOA, a “forever chemical.” ‘.

Teflon and Scotchgard are very familiar after a certain age. Whether we were marveling at the non-stick coating of our pans in the ’80s and ’90s or celebrating the then-breakthrough new stain and water-resistant technology for our coats and boots, these materials seemed to have few downsides.

Unfortunately we now know better. As a result of a class action lawsuit filed by Rob’s law firm, Taft, against DuPont on behalf of those whose local water supply was contaminated by PFOA, the C8 Science Panel collected blood samples from nearly 70,000 people and, after seven years, concluded PFOA exposure could be linked to six specific conditions including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-related high blood pressure. It was Rob’s persistent work for his clients that provided this evidence.

“For 24 years we’ve been working to find ways to get this information out to regulators and scientists so steps can be taken to protect people from it,” he says. “But it was a long process – there was a lot of resistance. This was information that was deliberately hushed up and withheld. Believe it or not, despite the information we’ve finally been able to get out to the rest of the world, these companies are still fighting it, still trying to deny the science that exists now, so the fight goes on.”

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faith and family

A long, public legal battle can take a toll on his health and relationships, so Rob definitely needed the twin pillars of faith and family to take on the fight.

“So many things had to fit together just right. One of the most important of course was the happiness of being married to my wife Sarah – just an incredible person who is very faith based and grew up in the US Catholic Church and is very positive and focused on that. She worked in a large law firm before our first child was born and then decided to stay at home for the next time while we raise the children. But she knew what it was. I like working in a big company and I have a case like this. But I think she was and is just a special person who could see that this would be helpful for so many people – if we’re able to pull that out and push through here. And my children, all three sons, grew up and lived during this process and they are positive proof of that.

Hollywood is calling

Rob’s fight between David and Goliath caught the interest of actor Mark Ruffalo, who is a passionate environmentalist himself. He plays Rob in the 2019 film Dark Waters.

“Mark Ruffalo reached out to me in 2016 after reading an article in The New York Times Magazine that summed up this whole story. He was really shocked that something like this could have happened in the United States where we are suspected to be up to date with all these regulations and science how could this have happened without anyone knowing about it?

“He teamed up with the folks at Participant Media because I wanted to make sure that when this gets done, it’s done in a way that helps get the truth of the story out to the public and that it doesn’t The Case Is Director Todd Haynes has done a fantastic job of compressing a story that stretches over 20 years, with a lot of science, a lot of legal issues and a lot of complicated things into two hours to really convey to people what happened.”

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flame 23

So to flame. Rob is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Flame Youth Congress at the OVO Arena, Wembley on Saturday 4th March where he will address 10,000 young Catholics on this important issue of environmental justice. Young people are not only characteristically strong in faith, but also in matters of social justice.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to talk to young people. I’m speaking to various college groups at universities across the US because these are the people who have the passion and will make the change – they’re going to pull this through. They are much more attuned to many of these issues than people of our generation and I love to see that passion. I love seeing people realize that they can make a difference. A person standing up saying, “You know what, we can change that — it can happen.” And I hope that people will at least look at this story and realize that you had a farmer here in West Virginia who was resisted by one of the largest corporations in the world that went up against the entire US regulatory system, the legal system, the scientific process and actually got something going that is changing now, that the laws are changing internationally, that there are changes just from that single stand up and s stick out.”

Rob Bilott spoke to the Catholic Media Office before Flame from the offices of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Watch the official Dark Waters trailer here:


Listen to the interview: