Interview: 6 Questions for Robert Bilott
For environmental lawyer and author, Robert Bilott, news of dying cattle in a small West Virginia town came to be the starting point of a 20-year court battle against chemical giant DuPont. Representing 70,000 people in the communities surrounding Parkersburg, West Virginia, Bilott pursued a class-action lawsuit against DuPont for contaminating the area’s drinking water with Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Through an innovative science-based settlement off the court case, a series of massive human health studies were conducted over 7years, including epidemiological studies of over 69,000 of the victims, which contributed significantly to the scientific understanding of the global health risks associated with PFOA and the broader class of related Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). This class of substances, which do not break down in the environment or the human body, are ubiquitous in our societies today and can cause serious health problems, including cancer. Thus, Bilott’s work has also been a contributing factor to current plans both by the UN and on a European-level to restrict and phase out the use of PFAS.
Bilott was bestowed the Right Livelihood Award in 2017 for “exposing a decades-long history of chemical pollution, winning long-sought justice for the victims, and setting a precedent for effective regulation on hazardous substances.”
Bilott’s story is currently gaining recognition through the feature Hollywood film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo in the lead, and in a documentary, The Devil We Know. Dark Waters premiered in Sweden on March 6, 2020. Bilott has recently published a book, titled Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont‘ detailing his long fight for justice.
In 2018, Bilott filed a new case seeking to represent a class of everyone in the United States with PFAS chemicals in their blood, in which he is asking a federal court to order the companies that make PFAS to pay for independent scientific studies and testing, on a national scale, related to disease caused by the mix of PFAS chemicals humans are exposed to. Bilott successfully defeated the companies’ motions to dismiss the claims and the case is now proceeding in federal court in Ohio.
The Right Livelihood Foundation met with Bilott in Stockholm, who shared some insights into what the victory has meant for battling toxic pollution going forward and what it was that enabled the success of the process.
How did you come to realize that there were dangerous chemicals in the water?
We were originally contacted by a family who was raising cattle and who had several hundred head of cattle that were getting sick or dying after drinking water from a creek coming from a landfill owned by the DuPont company. It was in the course of trying to figure out what was harming the cattle that we discovered that the chemical PFOA was not only in the water in the landfill, but also in the drinking water for the entire community.
Did DuPont have any prior knowledge of the fact that the chemicals in the water could be harmful to people?
When we first saw a reference to the chemical PFOA, I asked for more documents about that chemical. As I started going through those documents, we saw that there had been years of internal studies on the chemical. There was a wealth of information about the toxicity of this chemical within the company files that was not necessarily known to the federal or state regulators, and it was certainly not known to the people in the community. Nobody in the community had been told that this chemical was in their water.
When was the community first alerted?
The first time we discovered that PFOA was in the drinking water and alerted DuPont that we were aware of that was in the summer of 2000. The company had been testing the waters as early as 1984, but the community wasn’t told until at the earliest October of 2000.
After finding out that the drinking water was polluted, what were the next steps and why do you think that this particular process was successful?
I made the decision to try to put all that information together in a letter that I sent to federal and state regulators in 2001. Unfortunately, the process of the regulatory world moves slowly, which is why we had to push the issue through private litigation, with testing and studies in the meantime, and why we ended up doing this independent Science Panel process. Nobody had studied the community. DuPont had looked at workers, but nobody had comprehensively studied what PFOA will do to the people in the community drinking it over time. We used $70 million received in the class action settlement from DuPont to pay people to come in and have their blood drawn, and to have questionnaires filled out so that there would be sufficient data for the independent scientists to look at, and ended up having 69,000 people tested.
The case went on for close to 20 years, what was the result in the end for all the victims?
The independent Science Panel ended up finding probable links with testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, and high cholesterol.
We had about 3,500 people who had tested positive for one of the linked diseases come forward, and they each filed individual claims. They were all consolidated with a federal court in Ohio in 2013. The first cases started to go to jury trials in 2015. Each of the first three trials resulted in a verdict against DuPont for causing someone’s cancer. During the fourth trial in early 2017, both sides agreed to resolve all of 3,500 cases for $670.7 million, and everybody in the class who was exposed will get free medical testing in the future, paid for by DuPont, up to an additional $235 million.
Could this model be applied to similar cases of toxic pollution?
This is, I think, a very vivid example of how important the ability of citizens to use this private litigation system, and these independent scientific studies, is. Waiting for the regulatory and governmental processes to work could take decades. When you’re dealing with a chemical that is essentially unregulated, and has fallen outside the scope of any of the state or federal regulations, it presents a lot of unique challenges, and we determined we needed to approach it in a completely new way. Hopefully, people can use that same model for additional chemicals found in other locations.