Usually I try and keep these thrice weekly notes to around a thousand words.
The notes and quotes for this piece stretched to 2,400 words.
Corporate America is sick.
On Monday I wrote to you about oil company donors to politicians which have fuelled the simplifications, distortions and plain lies which have stained the iPhone screens and Twitter feeds of everyone trying to understand what has happened.
Last night I learned about the DuPont litigation which stretches back 50 years, and it has shaken me a bit, to be honest.
But oddly this is actually just a film review, because last night I watched Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo who also produced it. Sadly, I am no film buff and can offer little in the way of cinematographic analysis, but it’s the story I’m interested in above all.
It’s one of those films where it’s “based on a true story” and you watch it and it’s mental and you think, “Yeah, huh, based on.”
And then it ends and you google “Dark Waters fact or fiction” and it turns out it’s all true, down to some incredible details.
It’s shot like a horror film, very dark and sinister, and it has all the pace and drama of a great thriller.
This is appropriate because even as a man who avoids traditional horror films like the plague (should plague be updated to corona?), this is scarier than anything I’ve seen.
Because of the extent to which it undermines our belief in the greatness of the US and Western civilisation.
It is bleak and harrowing and remarkable and uplifting, dramatic and inspiring.
It’s Jason Bourne meets The Big Short… kinda (and probably just fractionally less good than either – they are two of my favourite films after all).
I’m told that if you’ve seen All the President’s Men, that’s also very similar.
I came to watch it because I’ve become interested in a number of things related to energy, the environment and sustainability.
In this case, water.
Michael Burry of The Big Short fame (played by Christian Bale) is very big on this.
And Dark Waters is, as you might imagine, right on topic.
It’s about DuPont’s decades-long concealment of the harmful effects of its chemicals on living creatures, especially humans.
Based on a New York Times Magazine long-read, the film follows the incredible discovery of the wrongdoing by a humble, incredibly hard-working lawyer called Rob Bilott. All quotes from the original article are in italics.
Terp, his supervisor, recalls him as ‘‘a real standout lawyer: incredibly bright, energetic, tenacious and very, very thorough.’’
Then Wilbur Tennant came along.
Wilbur Tennant was a rural cattle farmer, who know Bilott’s grandmother, in a small town in West Virginia.
It was extraordinary that a corporate lawyer, a partner no less, at a law firm which traditionally defended chemical companies, would take the case.
Having come from a humble background, not been to an Ivy League college, and being the only one of his friends to have succeeded in corporate life, it seems he was driven by that very human instinct to help the suffering underdog.
‘‘There was a reason why I was interested in helping out the Tennants,’’ he said after a pause. ‘‘It was a great opportunity to use my background for people who really needed it.’’
His first exposure to the problem was when Tennant turned up to his high-rise office in central Cincinnati with a stack of video tapes and images.
The videos showed a large pipe running into the creek, discharging green water with bubbles on the surface. ‘‘This is what they expect a man’s cows to drink on his own property,’’ Wilbur says. ‘‘It’s about high time that someone in the state department of something-or-another got off their cans.’’
At one point, the video cuts to a skinny red cow standing in hay. Patches of its hair are missing, and its back is humped — a result, Wilbur speculates, of a kidney malfunction. Another blast of static is followed by a close-up of a dead black calf lying in the snow, its eye a brilliant, chemical blue. ‘‘One hundred fifty-three of these animals I’ve lost on this farm,’’ Wilbur says later in the video. ‘‘Every veterinarian that I’ve called in Parkersburg, they will not return my phone calls or they don’t want to get involved. Since they don’t want to get involved, I’ll have to dissect this thing myself. … I’m going to start at this head.’’
The video cuts to a calf’s bisected head. Close-ups follow of the calf’s blackened teeth (‘‘They say that’s due to high concentrations of fluoride in the water that they drink’’), its liver, heart, stomachs, kidneys and gall bladder. Each organ is sliced open, and Wilbur points out unusual discolorations — some dark, some green — and textures. ‘‘I don’t even like the looks of them,’’ he says. ‘‘It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before.’’
I think I’m going to leave it there in terms of outlining the narrative – you’ve got the set-up.
But here are some of the things which struck me, which hopefully don’t reveal too much as it’s a great bit of lockdown viewing and I recommend it!
In the area affected by the chemical waste, which seeped into the water, I found it terrifying how every job, school, doctor, scientist, journalist and lawyer was connected to DuPont.
One of the reasons the case ended up with Bilott was because no one would take a case against the chemicals giant.
It was the bedrock of society there, everyone was more or less employed by it. Even if they weren’t, every job in the town depended on it.
So the Tennant family was quickly shunned by the community.
Lifelong friends ignored the Tennants on the streets of Parkersburg and walked out of restaurants when they entered. ‘‘I’m not allowed to talk to you,’’ they said, when confronted. Four different times, the Tennants changed churches.
Even later on, as DuPont fought tooth and nail to obfuscate, Bilott and co were not seen as saviours but as a threat. A threat to their jobs, and their homes and families and perks.
The immense opposition they faced, not only from the incredible power of a corporate giant’s legal team, but from the community itself, makes your heart ache.
They were trying to help the town, its people, but were hated for it year after year.
And the other thing which truly terrified me was the incredible shamelessness of corporate America.
I couldn’t believe how much time rolls by in the film. How long everything takes.
But above all, how DuPont fights with every dollar and dirty trick in the book to stop this from coming out.
The company knew what it was doing.
It knew someone had rumbled them.
And DuPont didn’t come clean. It didn’t see the error of its ways. It didn’t try to remedy its extraordinary wrongdoing.
DuPont reacted quickly, requesting a gag order to block Bilott from providing the information he had discovered in the Tennant case to the government. A federal court denied it.
It seems to me that in such situations, the best possible course of action is to immediately become the champion of good. To truly lead the charge into the light, to go above and beyond to right the wrongs of the past.
It’s the worst thing in the world when someone is in the wrong and is caught out, but doesn’t apologise. They defend, blame, and excuse.
This might not be an example to everyone’s taste, but you could look at Germany and say that in many ways it has atoned for the errors of its past.
DuPont chose to do everything in its power not to pay for what it had done. Not to help the lives it had ruined and taken, the extreme criminality of its past.
I left feeling truly astonished and disheartened that the company still exists today. That so little is known about it, that its home page declares proudly that: “DuPont is using science and innovation to make the world a safer, healthier, and better place to live.”
How dare they?
It’s reminiscent of fascists or authoritarians who offer themselves up as progressive and only aiming to do what’s right for the population.
They have been allowed to lie and carry on their dirty work.
The original article finishes with this:
But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water.
Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.
‘‘We see a situation,’’ Joe Kiger says, ‘‘that has gone from Washington Works, to statewide, to the United States, and now it’s everywhere, it’s global. We’ve taken the cap off something here. But it’s just not DuPont. Good God. There are 60,000 unregulated chemicals out there right now. We have no idea what we’re taking.’’
Bilott doesn’t regret fighting DuPont for the last 16 years, nor for letting PFOA consume his career. But he is still angry. ‘‘The thought that DuPont could get away with this for this long,’’ Bilott says, his tone landing halfway between wonder and rage, ‘‘that they could keep making a profit off it, then get the agreement of the governmental agencies to slowly phase it out, only to replace it with an alternative with unknown human effects — we told the agencies about this in 2001, and they’ve essentially done nothing. That’s 14 years of this stuff continuing to be used, continuing to be in the drinking water all over the country. DuPont just quietly switches over to the next substance. And in the meantime, they fight everyone who has been injured by it.’’
That’s what I can’t stand.
It’s Texas all over again.
It’s money buying immunity, big corporations benefitting at the expense of the little guys.
It reminds me of what’s happening in Xinjiang too – how so many people know about it now, but nothing is being done.
I can’t imagine how the people involved in that awful episode feel, about how slowly it’s all going. About how people like you and I can read about it and not be out in the streets demanding action.
I don’t know – Texas, Xinjiang, DuPont… and add in all the reminders we had of Matt Hancock’s cronyism over the weekend (and we mustn’t forget the Kodak scandal either)…
It’s just so disheartening.
But the film reminds us that with people like Rob Bilott in the world, it’s always better to stay positive.
It’s a fantastic story, brilliantly told, and rather uplifting in an odd way.
I urge you to watch the film, it really is a belter.
All the best,
Editor, UK Uncensored