New Film 'Dark Waters' Shines Light on Chemical Pollution History in Ohio River Valley
By Sharon Kelly
Dark Waters, the new film starring Mark Ruffalo as attorney Rob Bilott, is set in the Ohio River Valley city of Parkersburg, West Virginia — a place about 150 miles downstream from where Shell is currently building a sprawling plastics manufacturing plant, known as an "ethane cracker," in Beaver, Pennsylvania.
Ruffalo's film, directed by Todd Haynes, debuted to critical acclaim, earning a Rotten Tomatoes critics' rating of 91 percent, with The Atlantic calling it a "chilling true story of corporate indifference."
While much of Dark Waters, as the title suggests, centers on contaminated water, the story of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the Teflon-linked chemical at the heart of the film, is also a story about air pollution. And as much as the film looks back to history, DuPont's pollution — and the company's decades-long cover-up — may gain new relevance as the chemical industry plans a multi-billion dollar expansion, fed by fracked fossil fuels, along the banks of the Ohio.
The film begins as a detective story set in the 1990s, as Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, begins investigating the bizarre deaths of cattle in a farming region he'd visited as a child. Bilott discovers the chemical culprit's identity less than an hour into the 2 hour and 7 minute film — and then spends the remainder of the movie pitting his personal tenacity against the DuPont corporation's deep-pocketed endurance, as even partners at Bilott's own law firm question his work.
The movie highlights DuPont's legal maneuvering, showing the company seeking to evade liability by "notifying" customers that the chemical was in their water at levels the notice suggested were "safe" — starting a time clock running for the statute of limitations on DuPont's liability.
The film's extended runtime mirrors the duration of Bilott's real-life legal battles with DuPont, which began as a single civil suit on behalf of farmer Wilbur Tennant but gradually expanded to become one of the largest medical monitoring lawsuits in U.S. history. Real impacted people, including Bucky Bailey and Parkersburg elementary school teacher Joe Kiger and his wife, appear on screen along Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, playing themselves in roles that layer an aura of realism onto the tale.
A Chemical History
Beyond the Ohio River Valley, PFOA, which according to a 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, can cause cancer, harm to fetuses, immune system issues and other health problems, has spread rapidly around the world.
First developed in the lab less than a century ago, PFOA can now be found in the bloodstreams of an estimated 99.7 percent of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in wildlife ranging from polar bears to dolphins to bald eagles. Once released, PFOA and the hundreds of other PFAS chemicals like it may take millennia to break down. Tied together by one of nature's strongest known chemical bonds, the carbon-fluorine bond, the molecule doesn't naturally degrade from exposure to light or water to break down over time. Instead, it bioaccumulates in the bloodstream, building up and exposing those higher up the food chain to progressively higher levels of the chemical.
Bilott's class action lawsuit centers on the water contamination from PFOA, which DuPont started using to produce its nonstick coating Teflon at its Parkersburg plant in 1951. His plaintiffs were customers of six water districts along the Ohio River on both the West Virginia and Ohio sides of its banks.
But while DuPont buried drums of the PFOA waste on the banks of the Ohio and otherwise disposed of its waste — in part, long before the nation's cornerstone environmental laws were written — PFOA itself is also a powdery dust that readily becomes airborne — and the Ohio River is lined on both sides by tall hills that can at times trap air pollution in the valley, where coal and steel towns dot the riverbanks.
Documents obtained by Bilott's legal team show DuPont slowly realized the dangers that the mix of air pollution and steep hills posed to the surrounding communities. In fact, one DuPont lawyer later privately bemoaned the fact that the company, which had been secretly testing the water for decades, hadn't checked for PFOA in the air.
"We also learned that not only do we have people drinking our famous surfactant (PFOA), but levels in ambient air above our guidelines, sure we have margins of safety in our number, but we should have checked this years ago and taken steps to remedy, guess the hills on the other side of the river cause great conditions for high ambient levels, the plume hits them before it can disperse more fully," DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote in an August 9, 2001 email. "Ugh."
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on Aug. 9, 2001.
PFOA's ability to become airborne may have helped it spread to some of the furthest reaches of the globe.
"The state of North Carolina has demonstrated atmospheric deposition of PFAS many miles downwind from a manufacturing facility," the Michigan Department of Environment said in a Q&A on the chemicals. "New Hampshire found contaminated groundwater was caused by atmospheric deposition of PFAS from industrial emissions of PFAS. Additionally, PFAS have been sampled and found in remote regions such as the Arctic."
In 2001, DuPont's attorney wrote that one scientist was so concerned about the PFOA air pollution in the valley that she suggested residents should wear masks. "Dr. Staats on our call last week seemed determined to assign a large does [sic] to air since that route of exposure is more difficult to deal with (e.g. she said it might require the public to wear 'gas masks'), of course she is aware of the recent dispersion modeling from the plant," Reilly wrote on Oct. 7 of that year.
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on Oct. 7, 2001.
DuPont also worked hard to pressure state environmental regulators to move slowly in response to the harms from PFOA — not because the dangers weren't real, but because the air pollution in the valley hadn't been accounted for.
"I go to Charleston Monday for a meeting Tuesday with WV regulators, we are also trying to convince them there is no emergency," Reilly wrote in an Oct. 13, 2001 email. "… [W]e are hoping [an independent agency] would actually agree to higher levels than we have been saying, if for no reason than we are exceeding the levels we say we set as our own guideline, mostly because no one bothered to do the air modeling until now, and our water test has been completely inadequate (until next week)."
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on Oct. 13, 2001.
Chemical Lessons for the Future
With an expanding petrochemical industry eyeing the Ohio as the site for tens of billions of dollars' worth of new petrochemical and plastic production, some in Parkersburg are wary of the environmental — and political — lessons from PFOA. Ohio and West Virginia have been slower than other states to respond to the pollution, reporter Nicholas Brumfield wrote in a piece published by expatalachians.
"For Parkersburg's Eric Engle, this inaction [on regulating PFAS in West Virginia and Ohio] is linked to the powerful influence of local petrochemical industries," Brumfield wrote. "'We have politicians still investing in petrochemicals to save the oil and gas industry … They're wanting to store ethane here now. We're still learning about the dangers of all these petrochemicals … We have to move past it,' Engle said.
It's worth observing that DuPont's PFOA pollution began long before today's federal environmental laws were written, like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Nonetheless, some in the Ohio River Valley remain concerned about the impacts that permitted pollution from new petrochemical projects could have.
"As I sat and watched the newly released movie Dark Waters, I thought, 'This could be the future of the Ohio River Valley,'" Randi Pokladnik, a retired research chemist who volunteers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the editor published by the Columbus Dispatch. "Ohio's regulatory agencies know millions of tons of toxins will be coming out of the plastics cracker smokestacks and into the air. They know toxic organic compounds will be flowing into the Ohio River."
Midway through Dark Waters, Darlene Kiger (played by Mare Winningham) describes the "Teflon flu" that workers, including her ex-husband — who used PFOA — developed. "We knew something wasn't right," Kiger says. "But this house, we bought it just by showing the bank my husband's DuPont ID. Put both our kids through college, engineers. And, in this town, that doesn't come without a price."
That's a moral dilemma that may confront more residents along the Ohio if the petrochemical industry arrives en masse (though it's worth noting that DuPont's Parkersburg plant employed 2,000 directly and roughly 1,000 more contractors, while modern petrochemical plants like Shell's ethane cracker in Beaver will employ an expected 600).
In the meantime, Dark Waters offers a look back at the extraordinary tenacity — and at times, simple luck — it took for those outside DuPont's inner circle to begin to understand the hazards and the harms the company's chemical contamination had caused.
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Tropical Storm Josephine Also No Threat to Land<p>Meanwhile, the season's record-earliest tenth named storm, Tropical Storm Josephine, was also struggling with high wind shear as it traced out a path over the open ocean.</p><p>At 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, Josephine was located about 310 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands, moving west-northwest at 15 mph with top sustained winds at 45 mph. Josephine is expected to bring one to three inches of rain over portions of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico over the weekend. Josephine will encounter steadily rising wind shear through Monday, peaking at a very high 30 – 35 knots. This high shear is likely to destroy Josephine's circulation by Monday, before the storm can affect any other land areas.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/08/tropical-storm-kyle-forms-unlikely-to-affect-land/" target="_blank">Yale Climate Connections</a>. </em><em></em></p>
By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds<p>The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures. </p><p>Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.</p><p>There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.</p><p>They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.</p>
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.<p>But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called <a href="https://theoceancleanup.com/" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a>, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage. </p>
Collecting With the Current<p>"Plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. To us, that future is unacceptable," <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/green-entrepreneur-sets-sights-on-great-pacific-garbage-patch/a-38855785" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a> declares on its website.</p><p>But Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, and one of the few scientists to study this ecosystem, fears that The Ocean Cleanup's proposal to remove 90% of the plastic trash from the water could also virtually wipe out the neuston.</p><p>One focus of Helm's studies is where these organisms congregate. "There are places that are very, very concentrated and areas of little concentration, and we're trying to figure out why," says Helm.</p><p>One factor is that the neuston floats with ocean currents, and Helm worries that it might collect in the exact same spots as marine plastic pollution. "Our initial data show that regions with high concentrations of plastic are also regions with high concentrations of life."</p>
Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.<p>The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."</p><p>"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."</p><p>Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.</p>
Communication Breakdown<p>The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."</p><p>Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.</p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said. </p>
Inshore Solution?<p>Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.</p><p>"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says. </p><p>As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first. </p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Great Pacific Garbage Patch</a>. </p><p>The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.</p><p>Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.</p><p><span></span>"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.<a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2646992655#/" target="_self"></a></em><em></em></p>
By Hope Dickens
Molly Craig's day begins with feeding hungry baby birds at 6 a.m. The birds need to be fed every 15 minutes until 7 at night. If she's not feeding them, other staff at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center in Elburn, Illinois take turns helping the hungry orphans.
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"Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people," said former U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt.
So the FAO is using Twitter to remind the world of these five hidden benefits of forests.
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