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‘Dark Waters’ Stereotypes Draw Ire of West Virginia Lawmakers

CHARLESTON — Several Republican members of the West Virginia House of Delegates signed a letter this month criticizing a movie telling the story of C8 contamination in the Mid-Ohio Valley for unfairly reinforcing Appalachian stereotypes.

The Nov. 19 letter was written to the U.S House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, which had a hearing earlier that day, titled “Toxic, Forever Chemicals: A Call for Immediate Federal Action on PFAS.”

PFAS — short for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is any number of man-made chemical compounds. According to the EPA, these compounds don’t break down when absorbed by the human body, often accumulating in the body over time and leading to adverse health issues, including immune deficiencies, low infant birth weights, thyroid issues, and cancer.

During the House Oversight Committee hearing, members of Congress heard from several witnesses, including actor Mark Ruffalo, who is starring in the move “Dark Waters.”

Ruffalo plays an attorney representing a Wood County farmer whose cows have been poisoned after drinking from a water source contaminated by C8, a type of PFAS made by Dupont’s Washington Works plant.

“Dark Waters” is based on a true story about events that led to a lawsuit against Dupont, the makers of C8. The chemical compound was used for decades to make Teflon non-stick coatings most commonly used in cookware. Dupont and other companies began phasing out the manufacture of C8 by 2015.

The 17 West Virginia lawmakers who signed the letter to the House Oversight Committee do not take issue with documented issues with C8. They do, however, take issue with how Parkersburg – and West Virginians as a whole – are portrayed in the movie which was not film in Parkersburg or the state.

“We ask that you be aware that the PFAS-centered film ‘Dark Waters’ irresponsibly uses tired stereotypes about the people of West Virginia,” the lawmakers wrote. “The film’s portrayal of Parkersburg does not reflect reality and can do real damage to our economy and the hard-working people of the Mountain State.”

The lawmakers take issue with a specific scene showing a girl riding a bicycle and grinning, showing off rotting teeth, implying this was caused by C8 and PFAS chemicals.

“We are especially offended that ‘Dark Waters’ portrays West Virginia as literally toothless hillbillies,” the lawmakers wrote. “There is no evidence that PFAS exposure leads to oral heath deterioration. So either the filmmakers are fabricating science or they are relying on vulgar stereotypes to sell movie tickets. Neither is acceptable to us.”

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal on Feb. 9, researchers Nithya Ramesh, Manish Arora, and Joseph Braun found no connections between PFAS’s and an increase in dental cavities. However, they also warn that their data should be “interpreted cautiously.”

“We observed no associations between the prevalence of dental (cavities) and serum concentrations of (C8),” according to the study.

“West Virginia is a beautiful state with natural wonders that attracts thousands of tourists from across the world,” the lawmakers wrote. “An irresponsible film like “Dark Waters” puts tourism jobs at risk based on a lie. So, while we encourage Congress to get to bottom of PFAS-related matters, we ask that those who profit off fear-mongering and stereotyping be held accountable.”

Lawmakers signing the letter include: House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor; House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa. R-Jefferson; Del. Rick Atkinson III, R-Roane; Del. John Mandt, R-Cabell; Del. Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam; Del. Gary Howell, R-Mineral; Del. Chris Phillips, R-Barbour; Del. Terry Waxman, R-Harrison; Del. Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha; Del. Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas; Del. Scott Cadle, R-Mason; Del. Steve Westfall, R-Jackson; Del. Chris Toney. R-Raleigh; Del. T. Kevan Bartlett, R-Kanawha; Del. Terri Sypolt, R-Preston; and Del. Joe Jeffries, R-Kanawha.

A request for comment from Focus Features, the distributor of the film, and Participant, the film’s production company, was not returned.

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