“Part of the reason I wanted to make a film like this is there’s only so far activism can go. As soon as they sense an activist, half of the world shuts down,” he says. “There’s only so much an article can do, and maybe a documentary can do a little more, but a film, if it’s good, and it’s entertaining, and it rises to a cinematic story, it can profoundly influence the culture in a way that you can’t with any other medium.”
Dark Waters does for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) what Erin Brockovich did 20 years ago for hexavalent chromium, exposing a dangerous, ubiquitous pollutant most people have never heard of.
It begins in Parkersburg, West Virginia, near a landfill owned by the DuPont chemical company, on a farm where cows have been bellowing blood and turning up dead with enlarged organs and blackened teeth. Gradually, its ambit expands to the town, then the state, and by the closing credits, to the whole of the US.
PFOA is from a class of chemicals known as PFAS, prized by manufacturers for their ability to repel oil and water and used in everything from non-stick pans to stain-proof carpets, dental floss, cat litter, firefighting foam and rain jackets. According to an epidemiological study of 70,000 people in West Virginia, exposure to PFOA increases the risk of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure and thyroid disease.
Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott, an attorney with a burgeoning career advising chemical companies how to skirt environmental regulations, who finds himself switching sides when a farmer in his grandmother’s home town enlists him to fight DuPont. What starts as “a small matter for a family friend” gradually becomes a lifelong mission to hold the company to account for poisoning the West Virginia soil and the people who live on it.
DuPont has accused Dark Waters of “grossly misrepresent[ing] things that happened years ago, including our history, our values, our science”. A website set up by the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, truthaboutdarkwaters.com, takes the culture war approach: “The Hollywood activists behind this film attempt to deceive the public, threaten our jobs and destroy our way of life – all while lining their own pockets.”
In its statement to the Washington Post, DuPont did not say which of the events depicted in the movie was “wholly imagined”. Spoiler alert – the company really did find that PFOA increased liver size in rats in 1961, the same year the Teflon “Happy Pan” hit the market. It really did get employees to smoke Teflon-laced cigarettes the following year, and found that it made them sick.
DuPont dumped thousands of tonnes of sludge containing PFOA in unlined pits at the Parkersburg plant and pumped polluted wastewater into the Ohio River. In 1984 it found alarmingly high levels of the chemical in the water supply of communities downriver, but did not tell the Environmental Protection Agency. By the ’90s the company’s scientists knew that PFOA caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic and liver tumours in lab animals. DuPont kept on making it.
Bilott learned all of this and much more in 110,000 pages of company documents obtained through disclosure. Thanks to his dogged persistence, DuPont has since paid a $US10.5 million ($16 million) fine to the environment protection agency and settled a class action lawsuit worth $US374 million related to PFOA pollution. It continues to deny wrongdoing.
Before director Todd Haynes began shooting Dark Waters, he travelled to Parkersburg to check out the DuPont plant (he was chased away by security barking “Homeland Security”) and meet the plaintiffs in Bilott’s first lawsuits against the company, farmer Wilbur Tennant and local residents Joe and Darlene Kiger.
Haynes and Mario Correa reworked the script to focus on the personal cost to Bilott: the pay cuts, lost clients, marital tension, strained friendships and debilitating stress (Russell Crowe’s character in The Insider would empathise). “What I focused on was how to interpret this story in a way that audiences who are not activists can enter it and feel what it was like for Rob,” the director says.
He chose to shoot the scenes at Taft Law Firm in the office where the meetings actually took place, albeit because the triangular conference rooms with running glass-framed windows appealed to him aesthetically, rather than out of a commitment to veracity. He was initially reluctant to have Bilott on set but says he became “this resource, this touchstone… I could ask him questions about the smallest detail of things we were shooting.”
In the 1980s, DuPont found that women working on its Teflon line were giving birth to children with facial deformities at a higher rate than the general population. One such baby, Bucky Bailey, plays himself as an adult in the film – and is visibly the kid in the photograph, despite spending half his childhood in surgery. The Kigers, and Wilbur Tennant’s brother Jim, who sold his land to DuPont and got sick after they began dumping PFOA there, also have walk-on parts.
At the London press day for Dark Waters, journalists are offered a flyer explicitly framing the movie as activism: “See the film and sign the petition… Forever chemicals are a generational catastrophe,” and so on. Bilott is there, to talk about the dangers of PFAS, the need for regulation and his ongoing legal battles with Big Chemical – not typical subjects at a Hollywood junket.
Haynes has mixed feelings about this framing – “I’m really not an activist – I’m a filmmaker,” he tells me – but Ruffalo is all in. “I hope that millions of people see it and get educated, so that they have a choice about what they’re bringing into their lives and whether they want to be poisoned or not,” he says. “And I hope for some legislation, so these chemicals get regulated.”
A 2007 data analysis by the Centres for Disease Control in the US found that 99.7 per cent of Americans have PFOA in their bloodstream. Scientists have discovered the chemical in seals, polar bears, swordfish, tigers, walruses, turtles and the albatrosses of Midway Atoll, nearly 6500 kilometres from the nearest landmass, in the Pacific Ocean.
I hope that millions of people see it and get educated, so that they have a choice about … whether they want to be poisoned or not.
For many years, these chemicals were widely used in Australia in firefighting foams, particularly at airports, defence bases and ports. In 2018, Fairfax Media identified 90 sites being investigated for elevated PFAS levels.
Reporters discovered cancer clusters near Fiskville firefighting centre in Victoria and Williamtown air base in New South Wales. Work on Melbourne’s $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project is in limbo following the discovery of contaminated soil.
The Victorian EPA has warned people not to swim in Arundel Creek, Deep Creek and Maribyrnong River, near Melbourne Airport, but the official line from the Department of Health remains that there is “limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure”. A study at Australian National University into the health impacts is due to report later this year.
A class action lawsuit on behalf of 40,000 residents of Katherine (NT), Willamtown (NSW) and Oakey (QLD) reaches federal court this April. Shine Lawyers flew Erin Brockovich herself over from the US to publicise it. “They give warnings: don’t eat the fish, eat limited fish, don’t drink the water – but on the other hand, you’re telling people it’s safe,” she told ABC News. “It’s an extraordinarily confusing message.”
Two decades after Julia Roberts won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Brockovich, there is still no national drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium in the US. Even a hugely successful movie cannot hope to overturn decades of regulatory capture. But as states set their own standards and manufacturers such as H&M turn away from PFAS chemicals, Ruffalo sees reason for hope.
“You can’t, as a filmmaker, say ‘I’m going to change the world by making a film about this. The culture calls it forward,” he says. “This film happens to be landing in the world when we are thinking about these environmental issues. I don’t think you can do it alone – the culture’s got to be ready to have the conversation.”
I ask what his activism has cost him. “Oh, dude. I get death threats. I get hate mail. But it’s only enriched my life in every other way,” he tells me. “Look at Joaquin Phoenix. Joaquin Phoenix makes The Joker, right? And then he tells the world that we have to do something about climate change and have to be more inclusive. All those disaffected young men that love The Joker – they look up to him and relate to him. And he’s telling them ‘this is another way to be’. We can go out and sell watches. Why not use that same platform to inform people in other, remarkable ways?”
The day before we met, Ruffalo and Bilott talked to legislators at the European Parliament about the prospect of a ban on PFAS chemicals. Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have announced a plan to phase out their use by 2030. Bilott has filed a class action suit on behalf of every US resident with detectable levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood. Rather than damages, it seeks to force the manufacturers to pay for a vast epidemiological study, to definitively ascertain how harmful the chemicals are to humans and the environment.
The final line of Dark Waters is a caption on screen: “Rob Bilott is still fighting.” You can bet that DuPont is still fighting. Ruffalo is fighting, too.
“Corporations are sociopathic” he says. “So talk to them in money. Sue the shit out of them. Have consumers give up their products. But corporations now, like H&M, also want to be seen as decent people. So the more we tell these stories, the less likely they are to make these decisions when it’s happening in the boardroom. Somebody’s going to say ‘I don’t want to be part of this.’ And I hope that’s the moment we’re in.”
Dark Waters opens on March 5.