This is my favorite “movie time” of the year, as the studios usually release their best films to be considered for year-end awards. Most of us go to movies for escape, fun and excitement, but sometimes, we also get good doses of reality and thought-provoking subjects.
“Dark Waters,” now playing at most theaters, certainly fits into the latter category. It is considered a legal thriller, but in my estimation, it could be labeled “another dreadfully sad story of big industry in West Virginia.” It could also be called, “one persistent person can make a difference in millions of lives.” The bottom line is that this is the story of the famous DuPont Company knowingly using and releasing cancer producing chemicals into much of the water and land around Parkersburg, West Virginia.
The movie is based on previous published writings, including Mariah Blake’s, “Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg West Virginia” in the HuffPost Highline, Sharon Lerner’s “Bad Chemistry” in Intercept, and Nathaniel Rich’s “The Lawyer who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” in 2016 in the New York Times Magazine. This year, Rob Bilott, the real-life determined lawyer, played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie, wrote “Exposure.”
The movie theme unfolds when an angry and determined Wood County farmer, Wilbur Tennant, finds almost all his cows ill and dying. He contacts Rob Bilott, an upscale Cincinnati attorney who is part of the inner circle at Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, a prestigious law firm that defends industry and business. The farmer is a friend of the attorney’s grandmother in Parkersburg and, as we all know, it’s hard to ignore beloved grandmas.
I cringed a bit as I waited for the initial scene with Rob’s grandmother, fearing that West Virginians would again be portrayed as ignorant and living in substandard conditions; thankfully that wasn’t the case.
Don’t think that this movie is a good-guy lawyer quickly able to get a major company to concede that their popular product, Teflon coated cookware, and related by-products were deadly for the community. Rob Bilott spent 20 difficult years getting DuPont to admit guilt and pay damages for using a chemical, PFOA, also known as C8. It was unregulated by the U.S. government, but known to DuPont to be a carcinogen.
If we think that only DuPont, whose slogan from 1935-1982 was “Better things for better living- — through chemistry,” has polluted our state’s land and water supply, we’d be way off base. Our state is married to extractive industries, and therefore trades-off between good-paying employment and environmental disasters. Only five years ago Freedom Industries’ Elk River MCHM spill left 300,000 West Virginians without water to drink or use for anything other than the toilet.
West Virginia is not alone in facing water-related crises. Small, poor and neglected urban communities (think Flint, Michigan) are likely to have contaminated drinking water and receive little help from state or federal governments. Nowadays, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has less interest than ever in protecting “the little guy.”
Go see “Dark Waters,” which will remind you that big industry rarely gives a hoot about anything except their bottom line, but that there are still people who will go to extreme lengths to right a wrong. And yes, also remember that grandmothers have special connections.