Leadership Lessons From Rob Bilott’s 20 Year Battle For Justice Against DuPont

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In october 1998, a parkersburg, west virginia, farm animals farmer named earl tennant noticed that his cattle became death from a extraordinary contamination. Half of of his cows and their calves had mysteriously died, and the relaxation have been born deformed and dead. Unusually, even buzzards wouldn’t devour the carcasses.

Using his very own camcorder, he carefully documented the deaths of his cows, the inner organs he’d eliminated that gave the look of experiments in a pathology lab, and the deformities he’d seen. Then he boxed up numerous-dozen videotapes and notebooks complete of statistics and, in october 1998, drove them to cincinnati and surpassed them to environmental attorney rob bilott, who agreed to have a look at the proof and get returned to tennant.
Bilott soon determined that dry run creek, the offshoot of the ohio river that tennant’s livestock drank from, became full of c8, an industry call for perfluorooctanoic acid or pfoa, one of the foremost additives of teflon. He additionally learned that a dupont manufacturing facility that synthetic nonstick pans seven miles from tennant’s farm were dumping hundreds of thousands of kilos of teflon into the river for years—and that chemists within dupont had made numerous attempts to expose the plant’s moves but had been silenced.

Inside the summer time of 1999, bilott filed a lawsuit in opposition to dupont on tennant’s behalf however changed into met with a short setback: the veterinarians assigned to the investigation through the epa and dupont ruled that the deaths of tennant’s cattle were resulting from “bad husbandry.” moreover, due to the fact dupont changed into parkersburg’s fundamental business enterprise, townspeople became against the tennants for suing the company that controlled their livelihoods. At that second, tennant and bilott had no idea they had been signing up for a bruising battle with one among the biggest and most a success agencies within the international.
In 2014, after more than 15 years of complete scientific studies, a non-public health crisis, and the deaths of the plaintiffs he sought remuneration for, bilott prevailed. His litigation efforts yielded more than $671 million dollars in damages for approximately three,500 human beings. Dupont also settled with the epa, agreeing to pay an insignificant $sixteen.5 million exceptional for failure to disclose their findings about c8, a toxin this is now estimated to be present in ninety eight percent of the arena’s populace. The saga become the challenge of a recent netflix documentary, the devil we recognize, as well as the major motion picture, dark waters, wherein bilott is performed with the aid of actor mark ruffalo.
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Awed by way of bilott’s perseverance within the face of such lengthy odds, i interviewed him as a part of the studies for my e-book to be sincere: lead with the electricity of truth, justice and purpose. I wanted to hear what he had to say about corporate arrogance, the significance of justice, and the excessive price of doing the right aspect.

Bilott admits that he by no means would have expected dupont’s exceptional resistance to owning up to their behavior. He naively assumed that “if people see the records, if absolutely everyone ought to simply look at the facts, they may get it, they will recognize it.” that became the way he noticed the world, and he couldn’t recognise others now not doing the equal. “it just was wonderful to me that even after we installation this very clinical method with independent scientists who analyzed all of the information, all of it, and to reach these selections that all of us agreed, this become the manner it’d be done. But then we noticed folks status up and announcing that either this method was somehow [wrong] … Or they disagreed with the outcomes, or that frankly it never took place. Which turned into just super to me.”

If it seems too terrible to be real, it just might be. With the advantage of hindsight, the agency’s unwillingness to confess duty perhaps wasn’t so sudden. On the time dupont turned into one of the maximum respected corporations within the u.S., perhaps even the sector, and they have been acknowledged for using some of the brightest scientists on the earth. Inside the view of many—least of all dupont executives—they had been practically untouchable. “this is a corporation that had prided itself on being the science corporation. And actually, had kind of invented loads of the clinical approaches that the regulatory agencies used. Dupont obviously was round many years before the epa even existed,” says bilott. “to have oldsters wondering the conclusions that their scientists had been making, or that their human beings interpreting their scientists had been making became simply something that might no longer be common in any respect. ‘we are no longer going to have all of us thinking [our views]. . . . We are the science. We invented this area. How dare you recommend that we’re now not interpreting this effectively.’”

Even bilott couldn’t agree with what he was listening to when earl tennant first walked into his office. In his 2019 memoir about the incident, exposure: poisoned water, corporate greed, and one attorney’s twenty-year warfare against dupont, he writes of tennant’s go to, “i was skeptical. You might say i am professionally skeptical. Dupont become not a few fly-by means of-night time organization running under the radar of regulators. They have been one of the most important groups inside the world, almost two hundred years antique and distinctly respected, a enterprise extensively taken into consideration an industry chief.”

Recognition may have a darkish aspect. The sort of storied records can definitely breed greatness, but it could additionally breed arrogance. Admitting wrongdoing might imply drilling through layers of biases, layers of immovable preconceived notions regularly reinforced over the years. “in this case, the financial chance changed into there, however there was additionally ego,” says bilott. It could have taken years, but dupont paid dearly for its denial. The tragic irony, of route, is that the economic and reputational expenses the organisation suffered are so oftentimes extra than the fees they would have incurred if they’d just addressed the state of affairs while it first got here to light.

It’s no longer that there weren’t off-ramps alongside the way. Dupont had scientific studies going lower back to the 1950s that confirmed the dangers of c8 and how it brought about cancer in laboratory animals; with the aid of the late 80s, they had proof it triggered cancer in humans. Their files also contained internal reports urging that wastewater from the c8 production system should by no means be launched into public water sources. And yet, they refused to confess they could be incorrect, at the least publicly.

(having a sturdy recognition doesn’t want to reproduce vanity. Don’t forget how patagonia answered after they found out that the cotton they have been the use of for his or her outside clothing changed into harming employees and the environment. Inside only a few years, they completely converted to 100-percent organic cotton, that’s a long way less poisonous and polluting.)

A sense of justice may be discovered. No matter his distinctly attempting ordeal, bilott still believes that agencies and personnel can learn to do the proper component. Like so much else in lifestyles, change starts with honesty—and attractiveness. “be open to receiving the information and to be able to talk to people and accept what they’re telling you,” he advises. Leaders need to “provide an environment in which human beings are unfastened, or at the least sense that they may be free, to are available and in fact deliver the reality and the records of what is genuinely going on without feeling like they have got to offer it in a sure manner.

“it sounds simplistic, but you simply should be inclined to listen to human beings with an open mind and no longer in the context of some self-created assemble in which the records has to fit right into a positive peg otherwise you do not pay any interest to it, or it has to return to you a positive way. You’ve got to be willing to re-examine everything in case you need to.”

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