Just months before Rob Bilott made partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, he received a call on his direct line from a cattle farmer. The farmer, Wilbur Tennant of Parkersburg, W.Va., said that his cows were dying left and right. He believed that the DuPont chemical company, which until recently operated a site in Parkersburg that is more than 35 times the size of the Pentagon, was responsible. Tennant had tried to seek help locally, he said, but DuPont just about owned the entire town. He had been spurned not only by Parkersburg’s lawyers but also by its politicians, journalists, doctors and veterinarians. The farmer was angry and spoke in a heavy Appalachian accent. Bilott struggled to make sense of everything he was saying. He might have hung up had Tennant not blurted out the name of Bilott’s grandmother, Alma Holland White.
White had lived in Vienna, a northern suburb of Parkersburg, and as a child, Bilott often visited her in the summers. In 1973 she brought him to the cattle farm belonging to the Tennants’ neighbors, the Grahams, with whom White was friendly. Bilott spent the weekend riding horses, milking cows and watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown on TV. He was 7 years old. The visit to the Grahams’ farm was one of his happiest childhood memories.
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This was originally published in the The New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich