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‘Dark Waters’ Faces Inconvenient Truth of Environmental Activism

Nov. 21, 2019, 11:01 AM

Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” won the 2006 Academy Award for best documentary, and put the former vice president in front of efforts to raise awareness of climate change—yet had limited impact on federal policies.

Actor-producer Mark Ruffalo is also trying to translate film into political activism with Friday’s theatrical release of his Dark Waters, based on lawyer Rob Bilott’s years-long fight to hold DuPont Co. accountable for chemical contamination that a West Virginia farmer believed was killing his cattle.

Ruffalo and Bilott, of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, want Dark Waters to spur public demand for action to control the chemical the movie focuses on, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and the huge group of chemicals to which it belongs: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Ruffalo called for regulation of PFAS at a House subcommittee hearing Nov. 19.

PFAS are “really dangerous,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional PFAS Task Force. When audiences watch the film and see the suffering ordinary people experienced, he said, “they’ll see their own communities, their own neighbors.”

Yet moving an audience from a theater to political action is challenging, Kildee later told Bloomberg Environment.

People can go to a movie and be totally swept up, but those emotions don’t often translate to action, said Andrew Maynard, a scientist and professor at Arizona State University who’s written about the ethical issues some movies raise.

The reaction to “Inconvenient Truth” showed the fine line movie producers must walk if they want to change public behavior, Maynard said.

Some researchers whose investigations underscored concerns about climate change objected to the choice of scientific evidence the movie showcased, Maynard said. They felt evidence was selectively presented to shock people, but that the impact was to undermine the legitimacy of their research, he said.

“It’s rare for any one piece of content to have a substantial effect on public opinion,” said John Besley, a Michigan State University professor who specializes in the relationships between media, public engagement, and health and environmental risk perceptions.

“It’s not to say that it can’t happen; you never know what the tipping point is,” he said.

Translating Enthusiasm

Moviemakers increasingly use a range of strategies to translate the enthusiasm for a film into action, said Lyell Davies, a City University of New York professor and author of “Not Only Projections in a Dark Room: Theorizing Activist Film Festivals in the Lives of Campaigns and Social Movements.”

These include targeted screenings for lawmakers, showing the movies at film festivals that attract activist viewers, linking up with nonprofit advocacy groups that will amplify the film’s message, and providing the audience with a means to get engaged with the issue, he said.

Ruffalo and Bilott announced Nov. 19 a new national coalition, called Fight Forever Chemicals, to demand local, state, and federal protections against the substances.

The film, based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article, follows Bilott’s years-long fight to obtain information from DuPont’s corporate files about diseases and birth defects linked to PFOA, a chemical formerly used to make Teflon. Bilott won several multimillion-dollar settlements, including $670.7 million to settle thousands of personal-injury lawsuits stemming from exposure to polluted water supplies in West Virginia and Ohio.

PFOA and a similar chemical, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), are no longer produced in the U.S., and many countries around the world are working to stop their production globally.

‘It’s Time to Regulate PFAS’

Yet, many other PFAS are used to make food packaging, cookware, and other everyday consumer products, and continue to be released into the air and water, where they’ve been for decades, Ruffalo told the House subcommittee Nov. 19.

“It’s time to regulate PFAS chemicals,” he said.

Kildee and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the other co-chair of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, said they hope people will see “Dark Waters” and insist their lawmakers regulate PFAS. “For far too long people have been exposed to these dangerous chemicals,” Fitzpatrick said during a Nov. 19 press conference.

DuPont said it’s concerned about that possibility, saying in a statement that the movie “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,” the company said.

Indeed, DuPont supports PFAS regulation, a company spokesman said, pointing to testimony Chief Operations and Engineering Officer Daryl Roberts delivered Sept. 10 to the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment.

‘Science Needs to Drive Public Policy’

Some legislators also said they’re concerned about the potential influence of “Dark Waters.”

“Science needs to drive public policy,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Not movies.”

“Hollywood movies can get people’s attention to things; I only hope that they are balanced and accurate when they come out,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). “Sometimes they are sensationalistic, and play fast and loose with the facts.”

Done well, a movie can tell a compelling story that seduces the audience to think differently about its subject, Maynard said. But one that comes across as too preachy or that appears to twist evidence to support its agenda can make people feel duped or manipulated, he said.

“The stronger, the harder the push, the greater the danger of losing the audience,” Maynard said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergenvironment.com; Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bloombergenvironment.com; Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com