Warrior Lawyer Profile: Robert Bilott
Allard Exchange Student 2022-2023, LLB Candidate University of Nottingham
Jul 19, 2023
The Corporate Defence Lawyer who Took on Dupont
In recent months, the Guardian alone has published several articles detailing the worrying presence of per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment, from Norwegian Arctic ice to all of the United Kingdom’s waterways. PFAS are fluorinated carbon chains used in everyday products such as non-stick pans and sandwich bags, and specialised products like electronics and pipe sealant for nuclear weapons production. They are unreactive to water, sunlight and essentially any other chemical reaction and have consequently been termed “forever chemicals.”
These unique characteristics have made them extremely versatile but are also a cause for concern. One problem is that PFAS bioaccumulate in the tissues of living organisms. The dangers of exposure to PFAS continue to be uncovered but it is clear that they can cause cancer, birth defects, ulcerative colitis and a range of other diseases in both humans and animals.
Robert Bilott is the unlikely lawyer who found himself fighting against DuPont, the chemical company that produced massive amounts of PFAS, disposed of them incorrectly and simultaneously hoodwinked and harmed not just the people living nearby, but, as further investigation revealed, the rest of the United States and the world.
PFAS appear on Bilott’s radar
Bilott began his career as a defence lawyer working for Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, advising corporations on how to avoid breaking environmental laws and how to deal with the clean-up of hazardous waste sites under the federal Superfund law. Bilott’s foray into the world of PFAS and his shift into the “enemy” territory of representing plaintiffs against corporations came in 1998, after a phone call from a distressed farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The farmer’s cattle were dying from a myriad of diseases. The farmer surmised—correctly, as it turned out—that this was the result of drinking water from a creek that ran through his farm.
DuPont had a factory and a landfill for non-toxic waste a few miles upstream from the farm in question. Over a period of several years, featuring many bouts of corporate side-stepping and scientific manipulation, Bilott discovered that DuPont had been manufacturing and using specific PFAS compounds since the 1970s (primarily, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)) with little or no regulation or precaution. He also discovered that DuPont had known of the negative effects of PFAS for decades.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 required companies to disclose the nature and potential risks of any new chemicals they wished to use, but chemicals that were already in use, including PFAS, were “grandfathered” and exempt from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Therefore, the EPA remained unaware of the risks of PFAS and DuPont continued to manufacture and use them, unregulated, for many more decades.
Two decades of anti-PFAS litigation
For over twenty years, Bilott’s main focus has been on obtaining justice for those who have experienced adverse health effects as a result of PFAS contamination. In the process he has successfully flagged the dangers of PFAS to the EPA and orchestrated some of the most extensive research into any chemical. The parties of his second class action case against DuPont, residents of the Ohio River Valley, agreed to use their settlement money to fund a massive epidemiological study of the effects of PFAS, the C8 Health Project. The project identified PFAS’s inability to break down in the body and confirmed its links to cancer and other fatal diseases.
Bilott speaks about his work and commitment to eradicating PFAS from our environment with such admirable nonchalance, it is difficult to conceive just how much he has already achieved. He has spoken of the effects of capitalist greed and corporate trickery on the efforts of those trying to protect and prevent harm to the environment. In his 2019 book, Exposure, Bilott speaks about feeling “unmoored” when he began to notice the fundamental flaws in the system, which he had trusted and utilized for his career up to that point.
For Bilott, the law offers the only avenue for those who have been harmed to attempt to achieve any form of reparation and justice, regardless of how long it may take or how many "roadblocks baked into the system" they may encounter.
Since Bilott began his work, there have been many international developments aimed at combatting PFAS and other Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Most significantly, the United Nations published the Stockholm Convention on POPs, in 2001, laying out aims for reducing and slowly phasing out the use and production of certain named POPs such as PFOS and PFOA. The European Union also developed the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) program in 2007, placing the onus on companies to identify and manage the risks linked to their substances. In some cases if management is not possible (such as is the case with PFOS and PFOA) use must be restricted or stopped altogether. It seems Bilott has instilled his passion against both PFASs and corporate complacency into the very fabric of global movements prohibiting and cleaning up forever chemicals.
Despite all this progress, experts have expressed their concern for the short chain replacements for PFOA and PFOS. With the restriction of one chemical comes the production of or creation of another new, unknown and potentially just as harmful alternative. Bilott himself expresses his fears of the vicious cycle of regulation and invention of new chemicals. He appears to be fighting a losing battle and although he is acutely aware of this he refuses to back down. It is his crushing sense of responsibility and desire to help that has allowed him to continue on despite the difficulties he has faced: be that from DuPont, the anxieties of his firm upon taking on such an uncharacteristic case, or the physical ailments his strenuous work appears to have caused him. If anything his work highlights the need for patience, creativity, and a great deal of compassion when pursuing environmental justice through the legal system.
In the past year, he has begun another class action case on behalf of the people of Ohio and thousands of US citizens who have been exposed to PFAS. Additionally, in a ground breaking move, the US federal government has imposed requirements for communities to test for and treat six types of “forever chemicals” including PFOA and PFOS in their water systems. Although we have a long way to go combatting and clearing PFAS from the environment, Bilott has certainly made a substantial start.
- Centre for Law and the Environment