The Real People Behind 'Dark Waters' Prove Justice Can Overcome Great Odds
The 2000 film Erin Brockovich was a cultural sensation. Star Julia Roberts won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the titular activist, a legal clerk who uncovered a conspiracy wherein Pacific Gas and Electric Company was knowingly poisoning a California town's water supply. Now, a new film called Dark Waters is shining a light on another true tale of uncovered corporate conspiracy, and the real people behind Dark Waters arguably deserve just as much recognition as Brokovich for doing their part to save lives.
Mark Ruffalo stars in Dark Waters, which is based on Nathaniel Rich's 2016 New York Times Magazine article about corporate defense attorney Rob Bilott, who uncovered an environmental conspiracy involving DuPont chemical company. Bilott worked for Cincinnati law firm Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, where he mostly defended chemical companies against lawsuits. One day in 1998, he received a call out of the blue from a West Virginia farmer who happened to be friends with Bilott's grandmother. The farmer had lost several cattle, and he believed the nearby DuPont chemical landfill was to blame. He had heard that Bilott was an environmental lawyer, but didn't understand that he wasn't the right kind of environmental lawyer. But Bilott, feeling some sort of kinship with the farmer thanks to spending part of his childhood in the man's West Virginia town, took on his case anyway. In doing so, Bilott — much like Brokovich — uncovered that DuPont had been knowingly poisoning the water supply of Parkersburg, WV through the use of the company's toxic chemical PFOA.
But Bilott wasn't the only player involved in this story. Read on to learn more about the real Robert Bilott and others who played a role in this true story of corporate corruption.
While the film Dark Waters distills Bilott's crusade for justice against DuPont to a tidy two-hour runtime, the actual class-action lawsuit he pursued took a full 18 years to resolve before he came away victorious, according to Cincinnati's WVXU. Today, Bilott is still a partner at Taft in Cincinnati, and he recently became an author, penning a book about his legal fight against DuPont called Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer's Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont.
He is played by Mark Ruffalo in the film.
Sarah Barlage Bilott
Robert Bilott's wife Sarah is also a lawyer, and when the two met she was working at a Cincinnati law firm defending corporations against worker's comp claims, according to The New York Times. After they married, Sarah stepped down from her job to raise the pair's children, and she offered her husband support during his two-decade-long case against one of the world's most powerful corporations. Since 2015, she has worked as a court appointed special advocates volunteer for children, according to her LinkedIn profile.
She is played by Anne Hathaway in the film.
Terp led the environmental team at Taft, which Bilott asked to become a part of when he joined the firm. As Bilott's supervisor, Terp took part with Bilott in the firm's initial meeting with farmer Wilbur Tennant, who showed them video evidence of his chemically-maimed cows. Terp told The Times that the prospect of going up against DuPont was a risky move, but he ultimately allowed Bilott to pursue the case. "I’m a firm believer that our work on the plaintiff’s side makes us better defense lawyers," he said. Terp went on to serve as chairman and managing partner at Taft for 10 years, and currently serves as a counsel attorney in the firm's Environmental Group.
He is played by Tim Robbins in the film.
Without Tennant, no action would have taken place against DuPont. He was the farmer who was losing his animals left and right — well over 100 cattle — and he knew the landfill was the reason for it. After getting Bilott to take on his case, he and his family were ostracized in their town, as DuPont pretty much ran the town and people didn't like that Tennant was stirring up trouble, according to The New York Times. But the farmer fought for what was right, and in the end justice was on his side. Unfortunately, though, Tennant didn't live to see the victory, as both he and his wife died of cancer before the case was resolved.
He is played by Bill Camp in the film.
Mark Ruffalo may play a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in Dark Waters, he portrays a real-life hero. And without the superhuman efforts of Robert Bilott and others, we would know far less about the dangers of PFOA contamination today.