Parkersburg, West Virginia is a short drive from Athens, Ohio. From the party strip of Ohio University to the farms of Parkersburg you pass through Wayne National Forest; cross the Ohio River, and the farms and hills emerge over the river. In so many ways, Parkersburg emblematizes the rural towns that make up the stretch of Appalachia that reaches through West Virginia and into Ohio. This is one of the towns that has historically fed the migration from Appalachia to Cincinnati that gave rise to the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.
Parkersburg is also the center of a horrifying environmental tragedy that inspired a new major motion picture, Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo. The film tells the story of Rob Bilott who took on one of the largest chemical companies in the world, DuPont corporation, on behalf of farmers after it was discovered that DuPont had been polluting the groundwater and drinking water with a toxic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an ingredient in Teflon.
Bilott is an urban Appalachian himself; his family is from Vienna, West Virginia. Bilott spent his youth moving around the country as the son of a military man. Rob Bilott was on the Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister. It is important to note that, as a corporate environmental lawyer, Bilott was not in the position to represent victims of environmental damage. He represented corporate interests through his firm. The case in Parkersburg caused him to take a new direction.
It was after a farmer from Parkersburg named Wilbur Tennant approached Bilott with photos of his cows dying all over the farm and clear evidence of chemical pollution coming into the water that Bilott decided to take the case. Tennant described to Bilott green chemicals spilling into the water, showed him photos of sick and dying cows, and documented the physical ailments plaguing people in the area. Bilott agreed to take the case even against the advice of his own colleagues. The New York Times ran a full story on Bilott and the case against DuPont.
The film unfolds like a detective story as DuPont maneuvered all of their corporate power to resist taking responsibility for the waste and the damage caused by their negligence. Bilott eventually won a settlement against DuPont for $671 million on behalf of 3500 people in West Virginia. But the film reveals the ways that this type of corporate recklessness falls too easily and often on the people of Appalachia. The combination of the remote region and economic disempowerment makes the Appalachian people and counties an easy mark for this kind of irresponsibility.
While Dark Waters shows the ultimate triumph of Bilott and the people of Parkersburg against a corporate giant, the problem of corporate irresponsibility remains a problem in the Appalachian region. See for example the Tennessee coal ash spill in which rural Appalachians were first poisoned with deadly coal ash, then further victimized when members of the community signed on for the clean-up and were not given proper protection against the deadly poisons found in coal ash.
These kinds of tragedies are one of the things that drive people out of the Appalachian counties and into cities like Cincinnati. There is a quotation from the movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, that I’ve never forgotten. The character of Lee Dollarhide explains to a young Doolittle Lynn, “If you’re born in Kentucky you’ve got three choices; coal mine, moonshine or move it on down the line.” In contemporary Appalachia, environmental degradation adds to the reasons people feel the need to move it on down the line.
The health of urban Appalachians and those who still live in the Appalachian region has long been a primary concern of UACC. The UACC maintains a Bibliography of Appalachian Resources that includes research on the health of urban Appalachians. The environmental impact of the kind we see dramatized in Dark Waters serves to remind us how vulnerable the Appalachian region still is even in the 21 st Century. It also reminds us of just how powerful one urban Appalachian can be in the face of overwhelming odds. Rob Bilott took on one of the most powerful corporations in the world as they mustered their resources to deny any responsibility for the horrifying damage they caused to the environment and human life. Bilott prevailed in this battle.
Dark Waters opened in wide release on December 6, 2019. The film is directed by Todd Haynes and stars Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott. Bilott’s own book, Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont, was released in October. An article about his ongoing advocacy can be found here.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.