An environmental lawyer recounts the two-decade-long saga of U.S. residents being poisoned by drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals used in the production of Teflon.
A young corporate attorney in Cincinnati as the narrative opens in 1996, Bilott explains his progression from defending corporate polluters to advocating for plaintiffs being denied justice by the multinational chemical manufacturer DuPont. Although the narrative eventually becomes dominated by arcane legal procedures and complicated chemistry, it opens powerfully as Bilott receives an unusual telephone call from Earl Tennant, a farmer on a modest acreage near Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant understood implicitly that some toxic substance was killing his cows and causing illness in his family, but nobody in West Virginia would listen, including the state environmental protection agency. Tennant was acquainted with Bilott’s grandmother, who provided him with the author’s phone number in Cincinnati. Though Bilott felt he could not accept Tennant as a client, for a multitude of reasons, he met with him at the farm, immediately sensed an injustice, and risked his career at his law firm to represent the Tennant family. Eventually, that one case mushroomed into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of tens of thousands of plaintiffs harmed by the toxic discharges emanating from DuPont’s factory. Bilott is obviously an advocate, so his treatment of DuPont’s scientists, lawyers, and top executives should be read with caution. Still, his level of detail leaves little doubt that year after year, the corporation misled government agencies, courts, and consumers into a false sense of security about the poisonous nature of their manufacturing processes. Bilott shares candid details about his own insecurities within his law firm as well as his failures as a husband and a father stemming from his workaholic nature.
Bilott’s admirable crusade is widely known thanks to coverage by journalists; this book adds plenty of detail and further context.