In the film Dark Waters, released in the UK on 28 February, Robert Bilottt (played by Mark Ruffalo) is a lawyer who takes us through an exposé of chemical giant Dupont’s cover up of its toxic product PFOA.
The film shows us the obstacles thrown up by the legal system and US government agencies to redress for residents of West Virginia who had been exposed to dangerous levels of PFOA. It has parallels with other heroic corporate whistle-blower movies from the USA, such as The Informant (2009) and The Insider (2009).
It’s an excellent exposé, explaining enough of the science and the victims’ experiences for viewers to understand the story. We learn that Dupont gets $1 billion of revenue a year from PFOA based products, including Teflon, and compare that to the around $700 million ultimate cost of settlement which Dupont tried to avoid. We see the power of Dupont to damage Bilott’s livelihood, and the toll of the 20 year struggle on Bilott’s family.
Some of the West Virginia residents and Dupont workers who were not party to the legal claims against Dupont abused and ostracised cancer-suffering claimants, Bilott and his family. A house belonging to one of the families was set on fire.
The implication is that Dupont is such a big employer in down-at-heel West Virginia that many locals were more fearful for their immediate livelihoods if Dupont were damaged than of the risk of cancers and other health problems caused by the PFOA contaminated water in their area.
If there was a union or community campaign against Dupont, it’s not apparent in this movie and not easily found online. Dupont, like other corporations and investors (think Adani), commands a degree of loyalty or support that it does not deserve.
This is a less examined side-story, one that seems to be difficult for movies and novels to convey the significance of, when civil law claims are the best-known examples of tackling corporate malfeasance in the USA.