Mark Ruffalo says story behind 'Dark Waters' exposes 'one of the greatest cover-ups in American history'

The man-made chemical PFOA has caused widespread contamination.

November 21, 2019, 11:46 AM

Mark Ruffalo told "The View" on Thursday that his new film, "Dark Waters," which is based on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont, will expose a story that almost "nobody knows about" even though it "affects everyone in the world."

The actor plays the role of lawyer Robert Bilott, who takes on a 20-year fight against the corporation to unveil the detrimental health and environmental effects of a chemical called perfluorooctanoate acid (PFOA). This chemical is part of a group of chemicals that were used to make non-stick cooking products, firefighting foam and water-repellent coatings.

PFOA has been found in water systems around the country and remains in the environment for a long time after it's introduced, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says exposure to the chemical is widespread in the U.S. population. While more research is needed to determine the human effects of the chemical, it has been shown in animals given large amounts to affect growth and development, reproduction and cause injury to the liver. Although U.S. manufacturers have phased out using the chemical since 2002, it may still be produced in other countries.

In 1998, cattle farmer Wilbur Tennant of Parkersburg, West Virginia, contacted Bilott and claimed that his livestock was dying because the runoff from a DuPont landfill had contaminated a creek on his land.

Tennant had tried to seek local help for his cause, according to The New York Times, but Parkersburg was a company town where DuPont employed thousands in the community. Lawyers, politicians, journalists, doctors, and veterinarians in the West Virginia town turned down Tennant's request for help, the paper said.

Bilott decided to take on Tennant's case, and worked on it for over 20 years, ultimately filing a class action suit on behalf of thousands who claimed to have been affected by the DuPont contamination. After years of litigation, the case was settled in 2017 after DuPont and its spinoff company Chemours Co. made a payout of $671 million to approximately 3,500 personal injury lawsuits against DuPont, but denied any wrongdoing. The suit also included nine other companies, including the 3M company, which manufactured perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS and sold them to DuPont.

On Thursday, Ruffalo and Bilott appeared on "The View" where they talked about how the real-life events inspired each of them to seek justice and portray the story that started with a concerned cattle farmer.

Ruffalo said that what caught his attention was the "enormity" of the chemical exposure to the public "and how long it's actually been going on."

Ruffalo added that he first heard about the case from reading The New York Times writer Nathaniel Rich's article, titled "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare."

"It's probably one of the greatest cover-ups in American history, and it affects everyone in the world now, and nobody knows about it," Ruffalo said. "PFOA, it's pretty much everywhere. They first found it in eagle eggs and that's what kind of raised the alarm in the first place, but they found it everywhere. It's in polar bears, it's in 99% of all living creatures on the planet."

PFOA is part of the group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and they've been nicknamed the "forever chemical" because they don't break down once released into the environment.

"It's in all of us here. It's a chemical; it's persistent," Ruffalo said. "It lasts forever, and it bioaccumulates in us and there's no way to get rid of it once it's in us."

PHOTO: Mark Ruffalo and Robert Bilott discuss the new movie "Dark Waters" and book "Exposure" on "The View," Nov. 21, 2019.
Mark Ruffalo and Robert Bilott discuss the new movie "Dark Waters" and book "Exposure" on "The View," Nov. 21, 2019.
Nicolette Cain/ABC News

Bilott called DuPont's toxic chemical leak "a massive public health threat."

"When we first found out about it, it was affecting -- we thought -- one farm, one family. Then we realized this was a chemical that was in the entire surrounding community's drinking water," Bilott said. "As we kept digging through the documents and seeing all these documents that really nobody else had seen, we realized this stuff was in water all over the country -- all over the world."

"We're now talking about, probably one of the biggest environmental contamination stories in history, and most of us still don't know about it," Bilott continued. "We know about Flint, Michigan -- one water supply. Yet here, we're talking about something that's in water all over the world, in all of our blood, in animals, polar bears, eagles and we're all just now starting to hear about this, because this information was withheld and covered up for years."

Pointing to Bilott, Ruffalo called him a hero.

"He's a hero not because you want to be him, but because you see how hard it was to be him," Ruffalo said of the lawyer who took on the DuPont company. "He really took the journey that very few of us take and it's an honor to be sitting here with him, and it's an incredible story. It's exciting; it's dangerous."

In a statement to ABC News, DuPont said:

“Safety, health and protecting the planet are core values at DuPont. We are -- and have always been -- committed to upholding the highest standards for the wellbeing of our employees, our customers and the communities in which we operate. As a science-based company, DuPont is innovating in all facets of our business -- in our policies and protocols as well as our products. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.

"Although DuPont does not make the chemicals in question, we have announced a series of commitments around our limited use of PFAS, and are leading industry in supporting federal legislation and science-based regulatory efforts to address these chemicals. This includes eliminating the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams from our facilities and granting royalty-free licenses to those seeking to use innovative PFAS remediation technologies.

"DuPont is in the business of creating essential innovations the world needs today. Hollywood is in the business of telling stories. While seeking to thrill and entertain, these stories often stretch facts. Unfortunately, this movie claims to be ‘inspired’ by real events and appears to grossly misrepresent things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science. The film’s previews depict wholly imagined events. Claims that our company tried to hide conclusive scientific findings are inaccurate. We have always -- and will continue to -- work with those in the scientific, not-for-profit and policy communities who demonstrate a serious and sincere desire to improve our health, our communities and our planet.”

"Dark Waters" will be in theaters Friday, Nov. 22.

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