In Your Neighborhood

We protect us vs. buy here now

A review of the movie, “Dark Waters,” a film that offers us a dark vision of what it will take to confront the corporate world of polluters and make them pay up for their transgressions, 50 years after the first Earth Day

Image courtesy of Dark Waters website

Attorney Rob Bilott [played by actor Mark Ruffalo] after meeting with farmer who claims his cows have been poisoned by chemical wastes from a DuPont facility.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/16/19
A review of the film, “Dark Waters,” a story about how a lawyer confronted – and beat – DuPont in court over the toxic legacy of its chemicals.
What is the current data available through the All Payer Claims Database that could be linked to potential clinical health problems caused by PFAS in Rhode Island? Moving beyond outrage, what are the best community strategies to hold corporations accountable for their toxic legacies? What are the opportunities for the R.I. General Assembly to create better regulations around the use of toxic chemicals in Rhode Island? Will the R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha decide to get involved with legal issues around PFAS contamination in Rhode Island? How many households still have Teflon-coated pans in their kitchens?
As Ken Silver, now a Ph.D. environmental scientist, used to sing in a song he wrote, “We demand the right to know,” with the lyrics: “If my kids eat it, drink it and breathe it, it’s no company trade secret,” communities are organizing around protecting themselves from toxic threats. Lead, mercury, asbestos, heavy metals, PCBs and PFAS are persistent bad actors.
What will it take for the R.I. Department of Education to ask the R.I. Department of Health to conduct a health audit of all the school buildings in Providence, to create an evidence-based database identifying which “sick” buildings are a health threat to teachers and students? How can Health Equity Zones be deployed to develop community-base solutions to toxic health threats? What are the identified toxic threats at the site of the proposed soccer stadium development in Pawtucket that need to be remediated? The answer, of course, is the community demanding the right to know, taking to heart the message, “We protect us.”

PROVIDENCE – To see the movie, “Dark Waters,” based on the story written by reporter Nathaniel Rich, published in The New York Times Magazine in January of 2016, entitled, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” it required a journey on a rainy winter day into the brightly lit world of “Buy Here Now,” otherwise known as the Providence Place Mall, two shopping weeks before Christmas, to partake of an afternoon matinee at Showcase Cinemas franchise at which there were only seven people in the audience beside myself. [Streaming has taken its toll.]

The jarring contradiction of the messaging in the movie, which ends with Johnny Cash singing a cover of Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down,” and the descent from the Providence Place Cinemas into the bright lights of fast food outlets at the shopping mall, captures, in succinct fashion, the clash of narratives in our daily world, where billion-dollar branding of convenience trumps the reality of the quiet desperation of our lives, when the health of our families and children are threatened by toxic pollution, despite the resiliency portrayed in the song. [See link below to YouTube to a video of the song.]

The magazine story – and the film – portrayed the heroic efforts of a lawyer, Rob Bilott, a partner in a Cincinnati law firm that owed its reputation to defending large chemical firms, in taking on the case of a West Virginia farmer, who believed that chemicals being dumped by a DuPont facility in Parkersburg had poisoned his cows.

The farmer was right – and the chemicals were not just poisoning the farm animals but the people of Parkersburg, through contamination of the drinking water, with tragic health consequences.

The film – and the magazine story about the decades-long lawsuit – detailed the toxic legacy of what today are known as “Forever Chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and in human bodies, with deadly health consequences, linked to numerous conditions.

The movie plows through familiar thematic cinematic ground – poor communities, victimized by large corporations, which are the major source of employment, where folks are being poisoned for profit but dependent on the jobs provided by the company for their livelihood.

In the movie, there is a sequence where the attorney drives through Parkersburg, West Virginia, showing a montage of all the public buildings, schools and playgrounds that are named after DuPont.

Even after the court finally orders blood tests for citizens to determine the concentrations of PFOAs, there is the scene where a young woman expresses her belief that the tests won’t find anything because DuPont is a good company.

Her denial, her desire to believe in the corporate goodness of DuPont, resonates across the current political world that we inhabit, where facts and truth cannot compete against the barrage of willful lies.

Living in the material world

The plot in the movie revolves around the blatant corporate denial, even after their own studies have confirmed the toxicity of the chemicals. The travesty and tragedy, however, is still being played out, in real time, in real life today, in communities across the nation and at many military bases, where the forever chemicals were used in fire-fighting foam.

U.S. House of Representatives Rep. Jim Langevin, D-RI, commenting on the Pentagon spending bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 11, said he was disappointed that the bill was passed without “important provisions regarding …human-made chemicals, such as per- and plyfluoroalkyl substances [PFAS], were dropped from the final bill.”

In Massachusetts, the state announced last week that it has developed new standards around concentrations of “forever chemicals” in water, in part in response to the discovery that a contractor for a N.H. waste site, Turnkey Landfill in Rochester, was dumping landfill runoff heavily contaminated with PFAS into the Merrimack River in Massachusetts.

Darkness and light

A shadow of darkness seems to pervade the film, intentionally, in the way that it was shot.

The message in one of the first scenes in the movie, first spoken by the angry farmer, was: “We protect us,” about the political reality that the community could not depend on the government or the legal system to protect itself from a corporate behemoth.

The same message was then repeated, with emphasis, in a scene near the end of the film, with the lawyer portraying Bilott, Mark Ruffalo, upon learning that DuPont had reneged on its deal, repeating the line, “We protect us,” as he shared his frustrations with his wife, portrayed by Anne Hathaway, outside a restaurant.

The deeper that Bilott goes into the weeds in the case, piecing together the story of corporate duplicity by DuPont, the more tenuous his own relationship with his wife and family and his law firm becomes. Yes, the good guys finally win, but it is at a huge personal cost.

In terms of box office receipts, “Dark Waters” cannot hope to compete with the Christmas season blockbusters now underway. Still, it remains an important part of the current American tragedy being played out in cities and towns across the nation, as communities confront the toxic legacy of corporate greed. The messaging is accurate: the reality is that “we protect us” is still the best defense.

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