EXPOSUREPoisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPontBy Robert Bilott with Tom Shroder
Robert Bilott never set out to be anyone’s hero. He made his living defending chemical companies at an old-line corporate law firm based in Cincinnati when, just a few months shy of making partner, he received a call from a West Virginia farmer who was convinced that the runoff from a nearby DuPont plant was killing his cows. The man had heard Bilott was an environmental lawyer, apparently not understanding that he wasn’t the kind of attorney who brought cases on behalf of aggrieved individuals; instead, Bilott defended companies against such complaints. The caller, however, dropped a magic name: that of Bilott’s grandmother, a beloved figure in his life. The farmer’s case, filed in 1999, and a second, larger class action suit that grew out of it, would dominate the next 20 years of Bilott’s life.
Bilott skillfully tells the story of his epic battle with DuPont and its lawyers in “Exposure,” which lands in bookstores just ahead of a new movie, “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott and Anne Hathaway as his put-upon wife. The screenplay is based on a 2016 article in The New York Times Magazine (“The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”), not Bilott’s manuscript. But as you read “Exposure,” it’s easy to imagine scenes in the film version of Bilott’s life. You see the time he was unable to reach his office phone because of the small skyscrapers of boxes and documents that blocked his way, and the time he was rushed to the hospital because of the physical toll the case was taking on his life. In a made-for-Hollywood twist, DuPont bests Bilott by exploiting his pre-existing relationship with a DuPont lawyer and then he bests DuPont’s attorneys through clever legal maneuvers of his own.
If Bilott makes for an unlikely warrior in the battle for safe drinking water, DuPont plays to type as the faceless behemoth that seems to care more about its bottom line than the health of its employees or the tens of thousands of people who lived near the giant plant it operates outside of Parkersburg, W.Va. Because, of course, it wasn’t just the cows that were suffering. Scientists inside the company were concerned enough about a particularly noxious chemical called PFOA — used to manufacture Teflon, among other products — that they began testing DuPont’s workers for exposure. But when the results suggested potential health problems, corporate’s answer was to stop the testing. The ever-thorough Bilott discovers old laboratory animal studies that DuPont and 3M, which manufactured PFOA, had conducted decades earlier. The results showed dogs and monkeys dying from exposure to PFOA, cancer in rats along with birth defects in its unborn. Yet Bilott found no follow-up investigations. At least within the pages of “Exposure,” plausible denial seems to be DuPont’s corporate motto. Ultimately, Bilott discovers dangerously high concentrations of PFOA leaching into the surrounding community’s drinking water.
Bilott is an engaging narrator who breaks our hearts with tales of clients suffering excruciating ailments and amazes us with endless 14-hour days scouring technical reports in search of that one clue that might help him make his case. The naïve corporate defense attorney we meet at the book’s start is gone by the end, and he seems no longer surprised when he realizes that regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency, are in DuPont’s pocket. By the time he learns PFOA and its chemical cousins are in the blood of virtually all of us, he knows it’s fallen to him to do the E.P.A.’s job. The book ends with him filing a federal class action suit against eight chemical companies on behalf of every American. His education is complete.