‘Dark Waters’ brings alum’s battle with DuPont to the big screen

By David Gulliver

Robert Bilott.
Robert Bilott.

New College alum Rob Bilott’s successful two-decade legal battle against DuPont for poisoning waters in an Appalachian town is now a movie starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

The film, “Dark Waters,” is set to open Nov. 22 in select theaters, with a wider release to come.

Bilott, a 1987 graduate and a member of the New College Alumni Association board of directors, is a partner at the Taft law firm in Cincinnati. In 1998 he got a call from a farmer who knew Bilott’s grandmother in West Virginia. More than 150 of the farmer’s cows had died, after developing deformities and ailments. Bilott began looking into the case, eventually tracing the problem to a substance known as PFOA, in water coming from a DuPont landfill.

The saga is detailed in a 2016 New York Times magazine story titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.”

Bilott’s digging revealed that DuPont had known for years that the substance caused a variety of illnesses, including two cancers, and that DuPont had dumped PFOA into open pits that allowed it to enter the local water supply. In 2001, Bilott brought his findings to the Environmental Protection Agency and filed a class-action lawsuit in West Virginia.

By 2011, more than 3,500 personal injury lawsuits from West Virginia residents had been filed against DuPont. In 2017, DuPont agreed to pay $671 million to settle those lawsuits. To date, DuPont has paid more than $1 billion in penalties from the PFOA findings.

Bilott is played by Mark Ruffalo, a three-time Academy Award nominee. Also starring are Academy Award winners Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins.

This could be the movie that finally lands Ruffalo an Oscar, Vanity Fair magazine has suggested: “If you’re an Academy voter who wants to hand a win to an actor who is both talented and justice-minded, Ruffalo could be your guy.”

In a 2016 story for Sarasota magazine, fellow New College alumna Susan Burns interviewed Bilott about his career and his time at New College:

When he entered New College, he says, his goal was to be a city planner.

“I was a political science major,” he says. “I tried to avoid anything that involved numbers and math. It was rather ironic that I ended up dealing with chemicals.” But he credits New College for instilling skills that equipped him well for battling the establishment. “They did a great job in teaching you how to think critically, how to analyze data, how to question what you’re seeing and look at it for yourself,” he says.

— David Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing at New College of Florida.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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