Dark Waters dramatizes actual events that occurred (and are still happening) in Parkersburg, West Virginia (an Ohio river town on the western border of the state), beginning in the 1950s and continuing to the present day.
Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is the newly minted partner at a prestigious Cincinnati law firm that specializes in the environmental defense of large chemical companies. He’s contacted by two West Virginia farmers who believe the local DuPont plant is dumping toxic waste in a landfill adjacent to their property that is killing their cattle.
Billot, supported by his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), files a complaint in 1998, kicking off an ordeal lasting 15 years, and has spawned cases still active in 2019. Switching from defending the corporations to suing them marks him as a turncoat to his previous clients. He paid the price in every aspect of his life: his tenacity in staying with the case strains his relationship with his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), his reputation, his health, and his legal career.
“Switching from defending the corporations to suing them marks him as a turncoat to his previous clients.”
In the 1950s, DuPont chemicals purchased the formula for a new kind of synthetic called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), abbreviated to C8. This chemical is a precursor required in the manufacture of industrial coatings like Teflon and Scotchgard. Knowing nothing about the possible impact on the environment, DuPont dumped millions of pounds of C8 into the Ohio River from their plant in Parkersburg. They discarded even more of it in landfills near the plant.
As a result of Billot’s lawsuit, DuPont was forced to fund a local epidemiological study of C8. The results were alarming but not surprising. For six disease categories, a probable link was found in C8 exposure to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Based on global testing for C8, researchers found that it is now present in some amount in every body of water on earth, and in the tissues of nearly every living organism. That’s particularly worrisome because this material doesn’t break down: it stays in your body for decades. Currently, there are over 5000 variants of the long carbon chain surfactant. New ones are still developed for specific uses.
As of October 2019, the Trump administration had begun rolling back portions of the 1972 Clean Water Act, so it seems unlikely the EPA would be engaged to provide protections against PFOAs and other chemicals like them. In the United States, there are no federal drinking water standards for C8. The EPA began requiring public water systems to monitor for it in 2012 and published drinking water health advisories (non-regulatory technical documents) in 2016. Ultimately, though, C8 and many chemicals like it remain unregulated.