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.
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. 3M invented PFOA just four years earlier; it was used to keep coatings like Teflon from clumping during production. 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. The company dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ‘‘digestion ponds’’: open, unlined pits on the Washington Works property, from which the chemical could seep straight into the ground. 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 1961, DuPont researchers found that the chemical could increase the size of the liver in rats and rabbits. A year later, they replicated these results in studies with dogs. PFOA’s peculiar chemical structure made it uncannily resistant to degradation. It also bound to plasma proteins in the blood, circulating through each organ in the body. 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.
‘‘DuPont freaked out when they realized that this guy was onto them,’’ says Ned McWilliams, a young trial lawyer who later joined Bilott’s legal team. ‘‘For a corporation to seek a gag order to prevent somebody from speaking to the E.P.A. is an extraordinary remedy. You could realize how bad that looks. They must have known that there was a small chance of winning. But they were so afraid that they were willing to roll the dice.’’