The Farmer Who Took On One Of The World’s Biggest Chemical Corporations
When the cattle on Wilbur Earl Tennant’s farm began to mysteriously fall ill and die, he suspected it wasn’t what the animals were eating—it was what they were drinking.
Editor’s note: In 1999, Robert Bilott sued E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co, better known as DuPont, on behalf of a West Virginia farmer whose cows were dying. Over the course of that lawsuit, Bilott discovered that DuPont had been using a chemical called PFOA in the production of Teflon for decades, while quietly studying its effects on lab animals and factory workers. PFOA is part of a larger class of PFAS chemicals. Bilott is currently suing several makers and users of these chemicals on behalf of all Americans with PFAS in their blood.
The following is an excerpt of Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont by Robert Bilott and Tom Shroder. Listen to an interview with Bilott about the chemical lawsuits on Science Friday.
No one would help him.
The cattle farmer stood at the edge of a creek that cut through a sun-dappled hollow. Behind him, white-faced Herefords grazed in rolling meadows. His mother’s grandfather had bought this land, and it was the only home he had ever known. As a boy, he had cooled his bare feet in this creek. As a man, he had walked its banks with his wife. As a father, he had watched his little girls splash around in its shallow ripples. His cattle now drank from its pools.
Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer's Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont
The stream looked like many other streams that flowed through his sprawling farm. It was small and ephemeral, fed by the rains that gathered in the creases of the ancient mountains that rumpled West Virginia and gave it those misty blue, almost-heaven vistas. Thunderstorms occasionally swelled the creek so much that he couldn’t wade across it. Dry spells shrank it to a necklace of pools that winked with silver minnows. Sometimes it ran so dry he’d find them glittering dead in the mud. That’s why they called it Dry Run.
Dry Run used to flow gin clear. Now it looked like dirty dishwater. Bubbles formed as it tumbled over stones in a sudsy film. A thicker foam gathered in eddies, trembling like egg whites whipped into stiff peaks so high they sometimes blew off on a breeze. You could poke it with a stick and leave a hole. It smelled rotten.
“That’s the water right there, underneath that foam,” the farmer said. He was speaking to the camcorder pressed to his eye. No one believed him when he told them about the things he saw happening to his land. Maybe if he filmed it, they could see for themselves and realize he was not just some crazy old farmer. Birds sang through the white-hot humidity as he panned the camcorder across the creek. His hand shook as he pressed the zoom button, zeroing in on a stagnant pool. Its surface was matte with a crusty film that wrinkled against the shore.
“How would you like for your livestock to have to drink something like that?” he asked his imagined audience.
The farmer’s name was Wilbur Earl Tennant. People who didn’t know him very well called him Wilbur, but friends and family called him Earl. At fifty-four, Earl was an imposing figure, six feet tall, lean and oxshouldered, with sandpaper hands and a permanent squint. He often walked through the woods shirtless and shoeless, his trousers rolled up, and he moved with an agile strength built by a lifetime of doing things like lifting calves over fences.
Hard labor was his birthright. It had paid for the 150 acres of land his great-grandfather had bought and for the two-story, four-room farmhouse pieced together from trees felled in the woods, dragged across fields, and raised by hand. The farmhouse stood at the foot of a sloping meadow that rose into a bald knob.
Dry Run was less than a mile’s walk from the home place, across Lee Creek, through an open field, and along a pair of tire tracks. It flowed through a corner of the three-hundred-acre farm, in a place Earl called “the holler.” A small valley cut between hillsides, the holler was where he moved the herd to graze throughout the summer. He walked there every day to count heads and check fences. The cows grazed on a mixed pasture of white Dutch clover, bluegrass, fescue, red clover . . . “just a duke’s mix of everything.” Until lately, the cattle always fattened up nicely on that, plus the corn he grew to finish them and a grain mix he bought from the feed store. Now, he was feeding them twice as much and watching them waste away.
The problem, he thought, was not what they were eating but what they were drinking. Sometimes the cattle watered at a spring-fed bathtub trough at the farthest end of the field, but mostly they drank from Dry Run. Earl had come to believe that its water was now poisoned—with what, he did not know.
“That’s where they’re supposed to come down here and pull water samples, to see what’s in that water.” He pointed the camera at a stagnant pool of water flanked by knee-high grass. The olive green water had a greenish brown foam encrusting the grassy bank. “Isn’t that lovely?”
The edge in his voice was anger. His cattle were dying inexplicably, and in droves. In less than two years he had lost at least one hundred calves and more than fifty cows. He marked each one on a calendar, a simple slash mark for each grotesque death. The herd that had once been nearly three hundred head had dwindled to just about half that.
Earl had sought help, but no one would step up. After contacting the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, he felt stonewalled. The state vet wouldn’t even come out to the farm. He knew the folks at the DNR, because they gave him a special permit to hunt on his land out of season. But now it seemed they were ignoring him.
“It don’t do you any good to go to the DNR about it. They just turn their back and walk on,” he told the camera. “But you just give me time. I’ll do something about it.”
Thing was, time was running out. It wasn’t just his cattle dying. Deer, birds, fish and other wildlife were turning up dead in and around Dry Run. He had stopped feeding his family venison from the deer he shot on his land. Their innards smelled funny and were sometimes riddled with what looked to him like tumors. The carcasses lay where they fell. Not even buzzards and scavengers would eat them.
“It don’t do you any good to go to the DNR about it. They just turn their back and walk on. But you just give me time. I’ll do something about it.”
Hunting had been one of Earl’s greatest pleasures. He had carried a rifle as he went about the farm, always ready to shoot dinner. He was an excellent marksman, and his family had always had enough meat to eat. His freezer had brimmed with venison, wild turkey, squirrel, and rabbit.
Now it was filled with specimens you might find in a pathology lab.
The problem had to be Dry Run, he thought. He hardly ever saw minnows swimming in the creek anymore, except the ones that floated belly up.
He zoomed out and panned over to an industrial pipe spewing froth into the creek.
“But the point I want to make, and make it real clear,” he said, zooming in, “that’s the mouth of Dry Run.”
The pipe flowed out of a collection pond at the low end of a landfill. On the other side of his property line, Dry Run Landfill was filling up the little valley that had once belonged to his family. Its dumping pits were unlined, designed for the disposal of nonhazardous waste—office paper and everyday trash. At least that’s what his family had been told thirteen years before by the company that had bought their land.
He didn’t believe it anymore. Anyone could see that something was terribly wrong, not only with the landfill itself but with the agencies responsible for monitoring it. Did they think no one would notice? Did they think he would just sit by?
“Somebody’s not doing their duty,” he said to the camera, to anyone who would listen. “And they’re going to find out one of these days that somebody’s tired of it.”
Two weeks after he filmed the foamy water, Earl aimed the camcorder at one of his cows. Standing walleyed in an open field was a polled Hereford— red with a white face and floppy ears.
He panned the camera a few degrees. Her calf, black and white, lay dead on its side in a circle of matted grass. It looked, at most, a few days old. Its head was tipped back at an awkward angle. The carcass was starting to smell.
“It’s just like that other calf up yonder,” he said, panning over the matted grass. “See how that’s all wallered down? That calf had died miserable. It kicked and thumped and wallered around there like you wouldn’t believe.”
Did they think no one would notice? Did they think he would just sit by?
The calf was engulfed in a black, humming mist. He zoomed in. Flies.
He panned again: a bonfire on a grassy slope, a pyre of logs as fat as garbage cans. In the flames, a calf lay broadside, burning. Black smoke curled into the daylight.
“This is the hundred and seventh calf that’s met this problem right here. And I burn them all. There’s been fifty-six cows that’s been burnt just like this.”
In another field, a grown cow lay dead. Her white hide was crusted with diarrhea, and her hip bones tented her hide. Her eyes were sunk deep in her head.
“This cow died about twenty, thirty minutes ago,” Earl said. “I fed her at least a gallon of grain a day. She had a calf over there. Calf born dead.” Earl loved his cows, and the cows loved Earl. They would nuzzle him as he scratched their heads. In the spring, he would run and catch the calves so his daughters could pet them. Even though he sold them to be finished and slaughtered for beef, he didn’t have the heart to kill one himself, unless it had a broken leg and he needed to end its suffering. Recently, the cows had started charging, trying to kick him and butt him with their heads, as this one had before she died.
She had spent the summer in the hollow, drinking out of Dry Run until she’d started to act strangely. With no one from the government or even local veterinarians willing to do it, Earl decided to do an autopsy himself. It wasn’t his first. His earlier efforts had all revealed unpleasant surprises: tumors, abnormal organs, unnatural smells. He wasn’t an expert, but the disease seemed clear enough that he bagged the physical evidence and left it in his freezer for the day he could get someone with credentials interested enough to take a look. That day had never come, so he decided he would make them watch a video.
“She’s poor as a whippoorwill. And I’m gonna cut her open and find out what caused her to die. Because I was feeding her enough feed that she shoulda gained weight instead of losing weight. The first thing I’m gonna do is cut this head open, check these teeth.”
Earl pulled on white gloves and pried open the cow’s mouth, probing her gums and teeth. The tongue looked normal, but some of the teeth were coal black, interspersed with the white ones like piano keys. One tooth had an abscess so large he reckoned he could stick an ice pick clear under it. The flies hummed as loud as bees. He sliced open the chest cavity, pulled out a lung, and turned the camera back on. The smell was odd. He couldn’t quite place it. It was different from the regular dead-cow smells he had dealt with all his life.
“I don’t understand them great big dark red places across there. Don’t understand that at all. I don’t ever remember seeing that in there before.”
He cut out the heart and sliced it open. The muscle looked fine, but a thin, yellow liquid gathered in the cavity where it once beat. “There is about a teacup or so full of it—it’s a real dark yeller. It’s something I have never run into before.”
He reached back into the cow and pulled out a liver that looked about right. Attached to it was a gallbladder that didn’t. “That’s the largest gall I ever saw in my life! Something is the matter right there. That thing’s about . . . oh, two-thirds bigger than it should be.”
The kidneys, too, looked abnormal. Where they should have been smooth, they looked ropy, covered with ridges. The spleen was thinner and whiter than any spleen he had come cross. When he cut out the other lung, he noted dark purple splotches where they should have been fluffy and pink. “You notice them dark place there, all down through? Even down near the tips of it. That’s very unusual. That looks a little bit like cancer to me.”
Whatever had killed this cow appeared to Earl to have eaten her from the inside out.
Excerpt from Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle against DuPont. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Bilott. “All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.” Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.