For exposing a decades-long history of chemical pollution, winning long-sought justice for the victims, and setting a precedent for effective regulation of hazardous substances.

Acceptance Speech – Robert Bilott

It is a tremendous honour to be among those receiving the Right Livelihood Award this year. The achievements and work of the other Laureates are truly inspiring.

During my career as a lawyer with the law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio, I have had the privilege of working with and representing the people of the Mid-Ohio Valley whose incredible courage and persistence has helped reveal an environmental contamination problem that is now felt across the globe.

It all started with a call from a farmer in West Virginia almost two decades ago. Wilbur Earl Tennant called seeking help to figure out why he was losing hundreds of cows on his family farm in West Virginia. The animals were getting sick and dying after being exposed to white, foaming water emanating from a nearby landfill. Although not the kind of matter my law firm typically handled, we agreed to help Mr Tennant and his family resolve the problem through the legal process. During that work, we discovered that a relatively unknown, and then essentially unregulated chemical, known as “ PFOA,” was not only in the landfill and the water that the animals were exposed to, but was present in drinking water in the surrounding community.

When we realized that the community did not know this chemical was in their water and found documents indicating it posed a risk to their health, we alerted governmental authorities, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency. That notice eventually spurred extensive regulatory review and investigation in the United States, culminating in the first efforts to begin controlling and minimizing exposures to the chemical.

Once the community learned of this exposure, they asked us to help them get the chemical out of their water and to assess whether they were now at risk for developing health problems because of the exposure. That was a difficult and challenging process, given the lack of regulatory standards and debate at the time over the human health effects from long-term exposures to the chemical in drinking water. We began by pursuing various forms of relief, including immediate clean water and medical monitoring for potential health risks, through class action litigation on behalf of the community. Eventually, we realized that we would need to create a new mechanism for resolving these issues outside of the traditional legal system.

We set up a new process through a series of independent panels – one involving epidemiologists and one involving medical doctors – who would address and resolve the issue of potential health threats from this chemical on the basis of science, while clean water was provided to the community. The process incorporated one of the largest human health studies ever done – eventually involving approximately 69,000 people in the impacted community.

This innovative process led to independent, scientific verification that the PFOA exposures at issue were linked to six serious diseases, including two types of cancer. As a result, the community became entitled to free medical monitoring to detect the possible onset of such diseases, and those with any such disease could pursue compensation for injuries related to those diseases. As of today’s date, over $670 Million is available to help compensate the people in the community with such injuries.

This unique scientific process has spurred change far beyond the Mid-Ohio Valley. The expanded scientific understanding of the serious health risks linked to PFOA led to an explosion of new scientific research into PFOA, along with sampling for the chemical in drinking water supplies across the United States and internationally. Now, millions of people world-wide, including in the United States, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, are learning that their drinking water is contaminated with PFOA or related chemicals and are demanding that steps be taken to provide clean water and minimize exposures. This new knowledge is spurring additional legal and regulatory restrictions and limits on PFOA on an unprecedented scale, including a complete phase-out of production in the United States, the first regulatory limits and standards for drinking water exposures, and calls for complete bans in other countries.

All thanks to the courage and persistence of one farmer and his family in West Virginia, determined to find out why their cows were getting sick, and the dedication and faith of the people of the Mid-Ohio Valley who pushed for real, scientific answers to a serious contamination problem in their community.

It has been my privilege and honour to represent this community and to work with a team of incredibly talented lawyers, doctors, and scientists. Their talents and support were crucial, second only to the incredible support and understanding of my family, including my wife, Sarah, and our three sons, Teddy, Charlie, and Tony, whose daily lives, for over 18 years, have been intertwined with this work.

I hope that the Right Livelihood Award helps spread awareness and recognition of the urgent need to take even further steps to protect our drinking water, and the ability and power of local residents and communities to make those changes happen – regardless of the odds.

Thank you.