By David Gulliver
New College of Florida alumnus Rob Bilott, an attorney whose work battling corporate giant DuPont is chronicled in his recently published book Exposure and the new movie “Dark Waters,” will be the speaker at the college’s 53rd commencement ceremony on May 15.
Don O’Shea, president of New College, announced the news this morning.
“We’re thrilled to have Rob Bilott as our commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient this year,” O’Shea said. “Rob’s legal work challenged the powerful and defended the less privileged. He uncovered a public health hazard, as highlighted in many publications and now in a major movie. His work exemplifies New College’s mission as an institution that prepares its students for lives of purpose, service and achievement.”
“Dark Waters” tells the story of Bilott’s successful two-decade legal battle against DuPont for poisoning waters in an Appalachian town.
Bilott, a 1987 graduate and a member of the New College Alumni Association board of directors, is portrayed by three-time Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo.
While a partner at the Taft law firm in Cincinnati in 1998, Bilott got a phone call from a farmer who knew Bilott’s grandmother in West Virginia. More than 150 of the farmer’s cows had died, after developing deformities and ailments. Bilott began looking into the case, eventually tracing the problem to a substance known as PFOA, in water coming from a DuPont landfill.
Bilott’s digging revealed that DuPont had known for years that the substance caused a variety of illnesses, including two cancers, and that DuPont had dumped PFOA into open pits that allowed it to enter the local water supply. In 2001, Bilott brought his findings to the Environmental Protection Agency and filed a class-action lawsuit in West Virginia.
By 2011, more than 3,500 personal injury lawsuits from West Virginia residents had been filed against DuPont. In 2017, DuPont agreed to pay $671 million to settle those lawsuits. To date, DuPont has paid more than $1 billion in penalties from the PFOA findings.
In a 2016 story for Sarasota magazine, fellow New College alumna Susan Burns interviewed Bilott about his career and his time at New College:
When he entered New College, he says, his goal was to be a city planner.
“I was a political science major,” he says. “I tried to avoid anything that involved numbers and math. It was rather ironic that I ended up dealing with chemicals.”
But he credits New College for instilling skills that equipped him well for battling the establishment. “They did a great job in teaching you how to think critically, how to analyze data, how to question what you’re seeing and look at it for yourself,” he says.
— David Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing at New College of Florida.
By David Gulliver