Every seat in Thalian Hall was filled last Tuesday night for the screening of the 2019 film “Dark Waters.” Directed by Todd Haynes and starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, the film tells the true story of a corporate defense lawyer who takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a story affecting our own Cape Fear River.
The screening was part of a nationwide tour by production company Participant Media and was preceded by a panel discussion. Local environmental groups helped bring the event to Wilmington, including Clean Cape Fear, Cape Fear River Watch, North Carolina Conservation Network, and the Center for Environmental Health. Amanda Chen, VP of Social Impact for Participant, moderated the panel.
Panelists included Kara Kenan, a breast cancer survivor from Leland, who told a powerful story of survival. She pointed to the fact that the “number of men and young women diagnosed with breast cancer here is astounding.”
County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was also present. He spoke about the efforts the county has made to rectify Wilmington’s water situation in the last three years. “We have tried to get [Chemours] to step up to the plate and do what they should be doing,” he said. They have written letters to state agencies and backed Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in their lawsuit against Chemours. CFPUA has had to update the Sweeney Plant’s new $43 million Granular Activated Carbon filtration system.
“[The] impact is going to be $5 a month for every citizen that uses the water until we recoup the money from Chemours,” Barfield said. “But guess what? We’re going to get the money from them.”
The star of the panel, though, was actor-cum-activist Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo has become a champion for towns across the country impacted by chemical pollution since taking on the “Dark Waters” role of attorney Robert Bilott, who takes on an environmental lawsuit against a corporation poisoning the water of a town.
“I made this movie because I feel like we’ve lost our connection to each other, and the only way that I know how to reinstate that connection is through storytelling,” he began. “Water transcends ideology and political bounds, and so does storytelling.”
In addition to starring in the film, Ruffalo also was one of its producers.
“How did we get to the point where we let water be this contaminated and make a judgment statement about the value of a human being over the value of a corporate profit?” he asked. “That’s the moment we’re all living in right now. That’s the political reality we’re living in.” We all have a part in this story, he said, just like the film’s characters.
In the front row of Thalian were four children Ruffalo had met earlier at a pre-screening meet and greet. He had them stand up, and set the stage for one of the evening’s most powerful moments.
“These kids, when they go to their school, they can’t drink the water that’s coming out of the tap,” Ruffalo said. “They are survivors of cancer—the kind of cancers we don’t see until people are in their 60s, generally speaking, but they’re fighting cancer now. They have family members fighting cancer, and they are afraid to drink the water that comes out of their taps—the very essence of life.”
To much applause, Ruffalo continued:
“They’re the ones I implore Chemours and DuPont and the state legislature to think about. Because they’re your kids, too. We should keep them safe. That’s our number one thing. We should be keeping the kids safe. That transcends anyone’s politics, and that’s how we change the world.”
After the discussion came the film, which was based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” It tells the story of Bilott, who, at the urging of family friend and cattle farmer Wilbur Tennant, filed suit against DuPont in the summer of 1999. It sparked a chain of events which leads directly to Wilmington. Bilott was the first one to see how DuPont had been covering up the effects of PFOA, thanks to his thorough review of 110,000 pages of internal documents. “They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad,” Bilott said. The article—and the film—elucidate how studies dating back to the ’60s proved a cancer link; worse, DuPont knew it was reaching the water supply in Parkersburg, West Virginia, by the mid-’80s. But DuPont deemed one billion dollars in annual profit to be worth poisoning their workers and the world.
The film is powerful and well-acted, and the story is well-told. It is like watching a “Star Wars” prequel to our own story in Wilmington. Or maybe we’re the sequels; everyone wants to think of themselves as “A New Hope.”
After speaking in Wilmington, Mark Ruffalo traveled to Raleigh to meet with Attorney General Josh Stein and several members of the NC Legislature, including Sen. Harper Peterson and Rep. Pricey Harrison, for a round-table discussion. Kemp Burdette, our Cape Fear Riverkeeper; Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear; and Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, were present at the table as well.
In an interview after the meeting, Donovan, who sat with Ruffalo and Bilott on a Washington Post panel last year and has testified before Congress about PFAS contamination, said she hopes the discussion will lead to more protections for downstream communities like ours. More so, she hopes to see an increase in funding for the DEQ to test municipal water supplies across the state. “North Carolina shouldn’t be on the lists we’re on,” Donovan said. As examples she pointed to a 2016 Harvard study which showed North Carolina having the third worst PFAS pollution in the nation. Additionally, a report by the Environmental Working Group earlier in the year placed Brunswick County in the top spot in the nation for toxins found in tap water.
Donovan also advocated for better medical monitoring, which played a crucial part in pinning the detrimental health effects experienced by the population to the chemicals DuPont produced in the “Dark Waters” story. “That C8 science panel was just for one chemical, and it was linked to seven diseases, two of which were cancers,” Donovan said. “We’re still being exposed to 15 different PFAS chemicals in our drinking water, and the scientists detected upward of 50 during the height of contamination.”
Sargent, with whom encore also spoke after the meeting, invited a woman named Jacki Smith from Fayetteville to the meeting. Jacki and her two sisters suffer from thyroid disease after a childhood spent drinking water from her now-81-year-old mother’s well. Her father, who worked for DuPont, died of a heart attack after battling a rare disease. “It was clear the attorney general was moved by Jacki’s testimony,” Sargent said.
On a far more personal note, Sargent spoke of her brother, Grant, an ex-firefighter and Marine who passed away last December from brain cancer. As a firefighter Grant was exposed to PFAS by his gear, by the foams he used to put out fires, and by burning carpets with nonstick coatings. The family is uncertain if his cancer was caused by his years of exposure. “The time is up on PFAS,” Sargent said. “It’s not safe. We know it. All exposure needs to be stopped now.”
It all leads to my ultimate point: Real people—our friends, family, co-workers, community—are paying the butcher’s bill in this battle—not corporations like DuPont or Chemours. They are still, incomprehensibly reaping incredible profits off of human suffering. To paraphrase another Ruffalo film, “The Avengers”: Now might be a really good time for us to get angry.