As the mid-September trial date approaches for the first of the personal injury cases against DuPont over the company’s C8 pollution, there’s been some new media interest in the story, from both The Intercept and from The Huffington Post. Lengthy stories by both included discussion of what got a lot of this whole thing out in the open in the first place — the controversy over what happened to the Tennant family’s cattle — and issue that has now come up again in the ongoing litigation.
Here’s The Intercept:
It may have been luck too — good or bad, depending on what side of the case you’re on — that led the attorney Robert Bilott to sue the DuPont company. In any case, he was an unlikely person to take on one of the world’s largest chemical companies. A partner at a corporate firm in Cincinnati, Bilott had spent his first eight years as an attorney on the other side of the table, defending large companies like DuPont. But in 1999 a cattle farmer named Wilbur Tennant came to see him. Tennant told him that DuPont had bought land from his family that was adjacent to his farm, for what the company had assured him would be a non-hazardous landfill, according to a letter Bilott later filed with the Environmental Protection Agency. Soon, a stream his cows drank from started to run smelly and black, with a layer of foam floating on the surface. Within a few years, hundreds of Tennant’s cattle had died. Bilott had no way of knowing at the time that what seemed like a straightforward case would lead to one of the most significant class-action lawsuits in the history of environmental law.
And here’s the Huffington Post:
The Tennant clan farmed the fertile patch of soil around the home place for more than a century. In the 1950s, Jim’s father ran off, leaving his wife to look after nine cows, two mules, one hog and five children. But the family got by, eating turtle and muskrat and peddling anything it could grow or forage—wild watercress and elderberries in the spring; ginseng and lima beans in the summer; hay and apples in the fall. Their West Virginia farm eventually grew into a 700-acre operation, with more than 200 head of cattle and enough corn to pack a 35-foot silo. Jim and his wife Della bought a house on an adjoining plot of land and swapped the outhouse for an indoor toilet.
Then, in the early 1980s, DuPont, which ran a sprawling chemical plant called Washington Works in nearby Parkersburg, approached the family about buying some acreage for a landfill. The Tennants were wary of having a waste dump so close to the farm. But DuPont assured them it would only dispose of non-toxic material like ash and scrap metal, and so they agreed to sell.
Shortly after the deal closed, Jim and Della, whose home abutted the new landfill, say their two young daughters started wheezing and hacking. Worried about the girls’ health, they moved to a house in town. But most of their relatives stayed, and Jim and Della continued hunting game and eating beef grazed on the farm.
Della took her daughters’ Girl Scout troop there to catch tadpoles in the creek and make plaster molds of deer tracks. Then, at some point in the mid-1990s, the water in the creek turned black and foamy, and the family began finding dead deer tangled in the brambles. The cattle started going blind, sprouting tumors, vomiting blood.
“One time this cow was coming down the road and it was just bellowing, the awfulest bellow you ever heard,” Della told me. “And every time it would bellow, blood would gush from its mouth and its nose. It just bellowed and bellowed and blood just kept flying, and then it would fall down, and it would try to get up … We didn’t have anything to shoot it with, so we just had to watch it until finally the cow bled to death.”
DuPont lawyers understandably would prefer that a jury in the C8 cases not hear anything about the cattle. They filed a motion to have such evidence excluded, arguing, among other things, that “any statement or suggestion that C8 has caused or causes cattle disease or cattle death is unsupported and would be misleading to the jury and unfairly prejudicial to DuPont.” The plaintiffs responded that they planned to offer the cattle evidence only in response to DuPont’s claims that it has at all times acted “proactively” with regard to C8 and public safety.