The true story behind legal thriller Dark Waters - how an American company poisoned thousands

Tuesday, 25th February 2020, 12:20 pm
Updated Tuesday, 25th February 2020, 12:32 pm

Legal thriller Dark Waters tells the story of tenacious attorney Mark Ruffalo, who takes a stand against a chemical company that has been poisoning a local town.

From director Todd Haynes (Carol, Wonderstruck), the film is based on real events that affected thousands of people in West Virginia.

Here’s everything you need to know about the story behind it.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

What is Dark Waters about?

Robert Bilott is a defence attorney who works on the environmental team at Cincinnati-based firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister.

Most of his days are spent defending the interests of major corporations like chemical giants DuPont - the massive firm which came in at number 35 on the 2019 Fortune 500 list of the largest companies in the United States.

However, everything changed in 1998 when a farmer from his father’s hometown told him that his cattle had been mysteriously dying in huge numbers in a grisly fashion – foaming at the mouth and covered in lesions.

When Bilott looked into the case, he uncovered clear evidence that DuPont’s nearby chemical plant had been dumping toxic waste into the town’s water supply. The plant in question was 35 times the size of the Pentagon.

The most concerning chemical being dumped was perfluorooctanoic acid, usually called PFOA, which had been linked to severe birth defects when pregnant women were exposed to it, as well as a host of illnesses including several forms of cancer.

The substance is nearly indestructible and so there are clear guidelines in place for how it must be disposed of. By not following them, DuPont allowed huge amounts of it to enter the town’s water supply.

Ultimately, DuPont was found to have poisoned over 70,000 local people as well as hundreds of animals.

Convincing anyone to join him in his fight against one of the most powerful organisations in the country would prove an almost impossible task for Bilott and the case itself dragged on for over a

decade.

How accurate is the film’s version of events?

Both the events of the movie and the characters represented in it are all very closely based on the real story.

The film originated from a 2016 New York Times article about the case. Mark Ruffalo read the story and immediately bought the rights for the film.

He then reached out to Bilott directly to get a fuller picture of the story, and the lawyer himself became involved with the film from there on.

Perhaps most significantly, the film remains absolutely true to the fact in all of the harmful practices it depicts DuPont engaging in, including the fact that they knew about the damage they were causing long before Bilott exposed it.

To ensure that his portrayal of the sadly now deceased farmer Wilbur Tennant was faithful to the real person, actor Bill Camp reached out to his brother and sister to learn more about him.

Of course, to tell a story effectively, certain changes will be made for dramatic reasons – the scene in which a DuPont executive sneers “f**k you, hick” at Bilott was invented for the film.

However, even some of the film’s more dramatic moments were shockingly faithful – the scene in which Tennant brandishes a rifle at one of DuPont’s helicopters did actually take place.

In real life, Bilott himself is still fighting. In October 2018, he filed a new suit against three other companies, one of whom was previously a part of DuPont.

When is the movie out?

Dark Waters will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 28 February 2020.

This article originally appeared on our siste site, The i.