The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare

Nathaniel Rich, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare. The New York Times Magazine, 6 January 2016. “Rob Bilott was a corporate defense attorney for eight years. Then he took on an environmental suit that would upend his entire career–and expose a brazen, decades-long history of chemical pollution.”

Just months before Rob Bilott made partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, he received a call on his direct line from a cattle farmer. The farmer, Wilbur Tennant of Parkersburg, W.Va., said that his cows were dying left and right. He believed that the DuPont chemical company, which until recently operated a site in Parkersburg that is more than 35 times the size of the Pentagon, was responsible. Tennant had tried to seek help locally, he said, but DuPont just about owned the entire town. He had been spurned not only by Parkersburg’s lawyers but also by its politicians, journalists, doctors and veterinarians. The farmer was angry and spoke in a heavy Appalachian accent. Bilott struggled to make sense of everything he was saying. He might have hung up had Tennant not blurted out the name of Bilott’s grandmother, Alma Holland White….

…[A]s a child, Bilott often visited her in the summers. In 1973 she [took] him to the cattle farm belonging to the Tennants’ neighbors, the Grahams, with whom White was friendly….

When the Grahams heard in 1998 that Wilbur Tennant was looking for legal help, they remembered Bilott, White’s grandson, who had grown up to become an environmental lawyer. They did not understand, however, that Bilott was not the right kind of environmental lawyer. He did not represent plaintiffs or private citizens. Like the other 200 lawyers at Taft, a firm founded in 1885 and tied historically to the family of President William Howard Taft, Bilott worked almost exclusively for large corporate clients. His specialty was defending chemical companies. Several times, Bilott had even worked on cases with DuPont lawyers. Nevertheless, as a favor to his grandmother, he agreed to meet the farmer. ‘‘It just felt like the right thing to do,’’ he says today….

About a week after his phone call, Tennant drove from Parkersburg with his wife to Taft’s headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. They hauled cardboard boxes containing videotapes, photographs and documents into the firm’s glassed-in reception area on the 18th floor….

Wilbur Tennant explained that he and his four siblings had run the cattle farm since their father abandoned them as children. They had seven cows then. Over the decades they steadily acquired land and cattle, until 200 cows roamed more than 600 hilly acres. The property would have been even larger had his brother Jim and Jim’s wife, Della, not sold 66 acres in the early ’80s to DuPont. The company wanted to use the plot for a landfill for waste from its factory near Parkersburg, called Washington Works, where Jim was employed as a laborer. Jim and Della did not want to sell, but Jim had been in poor health for years, mysterious ailments that doctors couldn’t diagnose, and they needed the money….

Not long after the sale, Wilbur told Bilott, the cattle began to act deranged. They had always been like pets to the Tennants. At the sight of a Tennant they would amble over, nuzzle and let themselves be milked. No longer. Now when they saw the farmers, they charged.

Wilbur fed a videotape into the VCR….  The video shows 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….

‘‘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.’’…

Bilott watched the video and looked at photographs for several hours. He saw cows with stringy tails, malformed hooves, giant lesions protruding from their hides and red, receded eyes; cows suffering constant diarrhea, slobbering white slime the consistency of toothpaste, staggering bowlegged like drunks. Tennant always zoomed in on his cows’ eyes. ‘‘This cow’s done a lot of suffering,’’ he would say, as a blinking eye filled the screen….

Bilott decided right away to take the Tennant case. It was, he says again, ‘‘the right thing to do.’’ Bilott might have had the practiced look of a corporate lawyer — soft-spoken, milk-complected, conservatively attired — but the job had not come naturally to him. He did not have a typical Taft résumé. He had not attended college or law school in the Ivy League…. As a [high school] junior, he received a recruitment letter from a tiny liberal-arts school in Sarasota called the New College of Florida, which graded pass/fail and allowed students to design their own curriculums. Many of his friends there were idealistic, progressive — ideological misfits in Reagan’s America. He met with professors individually and came to value critical thinking….

Surprising his professors, he chose to attend law school at Ohio State, where his favorite course was environmental law. ‘‘It seemed like it would have real-world impact,’’ he said. ‘‘It was something you could do to make a difference.’’ When, after graduation, Taft [Stettinus & Hollister] made him an offer, his mentors and friends from New College were aghast. They didn’t understand how he could join a corporate firm…. I just tried to get the best job I could. I don’t think I had any clue of what that involved.’’…

At Taft, he asked to join Thomas Terp’s environmental team. Ten years earlier, Congress passed the legislation known as Superfund, which financed the emergency cleanup of hazardous-waste dumps. Superfund was a lucrative development for firms like Taft, creating an entire subfield within environmental law, one that required a deep understanding of the new regulations in order to guide negotiations among municipal agencies and numerous private parties. Terp’s team at Taft was a leader in the field.

As an associate, Bilott was asked to determine which companies contributed which toxins and hazardous wastes in what quantities to which sites. He took depositions from plant employees, perused public records and organized huge amounts of historical data. He became an expert on the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory framework, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act. He mastered the chemistry of the pollutants, despite the fact that chemistry had been his worst subject in high school. ‘‘I learned how these companies work, how the laws work, how you defend these claims,’’ he said. He became the consummate insider.

Bilott was proud of the work he did. The main part of his job, as he understood it, was to help clients comply with the new regulations. Many of his clients, including Thiokol and Bee Chemical, disposed of hazardous waste long before the practice became so tightly regulated….

The Tennant case put Taft in a highly unusual position. The law firm was in the business of representing chemical corporations, not suing them. The prospect of taking on DuPont ‘‘did cause us pause,’’ Terp concedes. ‘‘But it was not a terribly difficult decision for us. I’m a firm believer that our work on the plaintiff’s side makes us better defense lawyers.’’…

Bilott, for his part, is reluctant to discuss his motivations for taking the case. The closest he came to elaborating was after being asked whether, having set out ‘‘to make a difference’’ in the world, he had any misgivings about the path his career had taken.

‘‘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.’’…

With the trial looming, Bilott stumbled upon a letter DuPont had sent to the E.P.A. that mentioned a substance at the landfill with a cryptic name: ‘‘PFOA.’’ In all his years working with chemical companies, Bilott had never heard of PFOA. It did not appear on any list of regulated materials, nor could he find it in Taft’s in-house library. The chemistry expert that he had retained for the case did, however, vaguely recall an article in a trade journal about a similar-sounding compound: PFOS, a soaplike agent used by the technology conglomerate 3M in the fabrication of Scotchgard.

Bilott hunted through his files for other references to PFOA, which he learned was short for perfluorooctanoic acid. But there was nothing. He asked DuPont to share all documentation related to the substance; DuPont refused. In the fall of 2000, Bilott requested a court order to force them. Against DuPont’s protests, the order was granted. Dozens of boxes containing thousands of unorganized documents began to arrive at Taft’s headquarters: private internal correspondence, medical and health reports and confidential studies conducted by DuPont scientists. There were more than 110,000 pages in all, some half a century old. Bilott spent the next few months on the floor of his office, poring over the documents and arranging them in chronological order. He stopped answering his office phone. When people called his secretary, she explained that he was in the office but had not been able to reach the phone in time, because he was trapped on all sides by boxes.

‘‘I started seeing a story,’’ Bilott said. ‘‘I may have been the first one to actually go through them all. It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’

Bilott is given to understatement….

The story began in 1951, when DuPont started purchasing PFOA (which the company refers to as C8) from 3M for use in the manufacturing of Teflon…. Though PFOA was not classified by the government as a hazardous substance, 3M sent DuPont recommendations on how to dispose of it. It was to be incinerated or sent to chemical-waste facilities. DuPont’s own instructions specified that it was not to be flushed into surface water or sewers. But over the decades that followed, DuPont pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg facility into the Ohio River…. PFOA entered the local water table, which supplied drinking water to the communities of Parkersburg, Vienna, Little Hocking and Lubeck — more than 100,000 people in all.

Bilott learned from the documents that 3M and DuPont had been conducting secret medical studies on PFOA for more than four decades…. In the 1970s, DuPont discovered that there were high concentrations of PFOA in the blood of factory workers at Washington Works. They did not tell the E.P.A. at the time. In 1981, 3M — which continued to serve as the supplier of PFOA to DuPont and other corporations — found that ingestion of the substance caused birth defects in rats. After 3M shared this information, DuPont tested the children of pregnant employees in their Teflon division. Of seven births, two had eye defects. DuPont did not make this information public….

By the ’90s, Bilott discovered, DuPont understood that PFOA caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic and liver tumors in lab animals…. DuPont at last hastened to develop an alternative to PFOA….  Discussions were held at DuPont’s corporate headquarters to discuss switching to the new compound. DuPont decided against it. The risk was too great: Products manufactured with PFOA were an important part of DuPont’s business, worth $1 billion in annual profit….

By 1990, DuPont had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge into Dry Run Landfill. DuPont’s scientists understood that the landfill drained into the Tennants’ remaining property, and they tested the water in Dry Run Creek. It contained an extraordinarily high concentration of PFOA. DuPont did not tell this to the Tennants at the time, nor did it disclose the fact in the cattle report that it commissioned for the Tennant case a decade later — the report that blamed poor husbandry for the deaths of their cows. Bilott had what he needed.

In August 2000, Bilott called DuPont’s lawyer, Bernard Reilly, and explained that he knew what was going on. It was a brief conversation.

The Tennants settled. The firm would receive its contingency fee. The whole business might have ended right there. But Bilott was not satisfied….

[Billot said:] ‘‘This was a completely different scenario. DuPont had for decades been actively trying to conceal their actions. They knew this stuff was harmful, and they put it in the water anyway. These were bad facts.’’ He had seen what the PFOA-tainted drinking water had done to cattle. What was it doing to the tens of thousands of people in the areas around Parkersburg who drank it daily from their taps? What did the insides of their heads look like? Were their internal organs green?

Bilott spent the following months drafting a public brief against DuPont. It was 972 pages long, including 136 attached exhibits. His colleagues call it ‘‘Rob’s Famous Letter.’’ ‘‘We have confirmed that the chemicals and pollutants released into the environment by DuPont at its Dry Run Landfill and other nearby DuPont-owned facilities may pose an imminent and substantial threat to health or the environment,’’ Bilott wrote….

With the Famous Letter, Bilott crossed a line. Though nominally representing the Tennants — their settlement had yet to be concluded — Bilott spoke for the public, claiming extensive fraud and wrongdoing. He had become a threat not merely to DuPont but also to, in the words of one internal memo, ‘‘the entire fluoropolymers industry’’ — an industry responsible for the high-performance plastics used in many modern devices, including kitchen products, computer cables, implantable medical devices and bearings and seals used in cars and airplanes. PFOA was only one of more than 60,000 synthetic chemicals that companies produced and released into the world without regulatory oversight.

‘‘Rob’s letter lifted the curtain on a whole new theater,’’ says Harry Deitzler, a plaintiff’s lawyer in West Virginia who works with Bilott. ‘‘Before that letter, corporations could rely upon the public misperception that if a chemical was dangerous, it was regulated.’’ Under the 1976 Toxic Sub­stances Control Act, the E.P.A. can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the E.P.A. has restricted only five chemicals, out of tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years….

The letter led, four years later, in 2005, to DuPont’s reaching a $16.5 million settlement with the E.P.A., which had accused the company of concealing its knowledge of PFOA’s toxicity and presence in the environment in violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act….

The obvious next step was to file a class-action lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of everyone whose water was tainted by PFOA….

…[T]he E.P.A., drawing from Bilott’s research, began its own investigation into the toxicity of PFOA. In 2002, the agency released its initial findings: PFOA might pose human health risks not only to those drinking tainted water, but also to the general public — anyone, for instance, who cooked with Teflon pans. The E.P.A. was particularly alarmed to learn that PFOA had been detected in American blood banks, something 3M and DuPont had known as early as 1976….

In September 2004, DuPont decided to settle the class-action suit. It agreed to install filtration plants in the six affected water districts if they wanted them and pay a cash award of $70 million. It would fund a scientific study to determine whether there was a ‘‘probable link’’ — a term that delicately avoided any declaration of causation — between PFOA and any diseases. If such links existed, DuPont would pay for medical monitoring of the affected group in perpetuity. Until the scientific study came back with its results, class members were forbidden from filing personal-injury suits against DuPont….

Bilott and his team of West Virginian plaintiff lawyers received $21.7 million in fees from the settlement….

Bilott represented 70,000 people who had been drinking PFOA-laced drinking water for decades. What if the settlement money could be used to test them? ‘‘Class members were concerned about three things,’’ Winter says. ‘‘One: Do I have C8 in my blood? Two: If I do, is it harmful? Three: If it’s harmful, what are the effects?’’ Bilott and his colleagues realized they could answer all three questions, if only they could test their clients. Now, they realized, there was a way to do so. After the settlement, the legal team pushed to make receipt of the cash award contingent on a full medical examination. The class voted in favor of this approach, and within months, nearly 70,000 West Virginians were trading their blood for a $400 check….

In December 2011, after seven years, the scientists began to release their findings: there was a ‘‘probable link’’ between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis….

As of October, 3,535 plaintiffs have filed personal-injury lawsuits against DuPont. The first member of this group to go to trial was a kidney-cancer survivor named Carla Bartlett. In October, Bartlett was awarded $1.6 million. DuPont plans to appeal. This may have ramifications well beyond Bartlett’s case: Hers is one of five ‘‘bellwether’’ cases that will be tried over the course of this year. After that, DuPont may choose to settle with every afflicted class member, using the outcome of the bellwether cases to determine settlement awards. Or DuPont can fight each suit individually, a tactic that tobacco companies have used to fight personal-injury lawsuits. At the rate of four trials a year, DuPont would continue to fight PFOA cases until the year 2890….

As part of its agreement with the E.P.A., DuPont ceased production and use of PFOA in 2013. The five other companies in the world that produce PFOA are also phasing out production….

Last May, 200 scientists from a variety of disciplines signed the Madrid Statement, which expresses concern about the production of all fluorochemicals, or PFASs, including those that have replaced PFOA. PFOA and its replacements are suspected to belong to a large class of artificial compounds called endocrine-disrupting chemicals; these compounds, which include chemicals used in the production of pesticides, plastics and gasoline, interfere with human reproduction and metabolism and cause cancer, thyroid problems and nervous-system disorders. In the last five years, however, a new wave of endocrinology research has found that even extremely low doses of such chemicals can create significant health problems. Among the Madrid scientists’ recommendations: ‘‘Enact legislation to require only essential uses of PFASs’’ and ‘‘Whenever possible, avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs. These include many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick.’’…

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.’’

Bilott is currently prosecuting Wolf v. DuPont, the second of the personal-injury cases filed by the members of his class. The plaintiff, John M. Wolf of Parkersburg, claims that PFOA in his drinking water caused him to develop ulcerative colitis. That trial begins in March. When it concludes, there will be 3,533 cases left to try.