Dark Waters: How and When Did Wilbur Tennant Die?

As a 2019 legal thriller delving deep into the way corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott turned his whole life upside down to fight for the little guy for once, ‘Deep Waters’ is unlike any other. That’s because it’s a dramatization of this lawyer’s real fight against the multinational chemical manufacturing company DuPont for disposing of its toxic waste (PFOA) across rural West Virginia. Though the one to have actually initially identified this ordeal was a local Parkersburg farmer named Wilbur Earl Tennant — his quickly dying flock had driven him to realize something was wrong.

Who Was Wilbur Tennant?

It was on March 6, 1942, in New England, West Virginia, that Wilbur was born to Lydia Wildman and Blaine Tennant as one of their five, only to be raised in a farmhouse his ancestors built by hand. The truth is their family profession was hard labor, which is precisely what’d enabled his great-grandfather to pay for the 150-acre land they called home for at least the next three generations. All of them thus also lived in this two-story, four-bedroom residence at the foot of a sloping meadow, which the latter had carefully pieced together from the trees felled in the nearby woods.

Image Credit: KM/Find A Grave

Therefore, despite the fact Wilbur had a great career in the city as an equipment operator at the WV Department of Highways, he chose to return to his homeland once it was time for him to retire. The former Wood County Schools bus driver knew he’d been a farmer in his heart his whole life – he especially enjoyed gardening, hunting, plus spending time with his flock of nearly 200 cows. But alas, everything changed for the worse for him starting in the late 1990s as he began noticing foam in the nearby creek as well as varied illnesses in his animals despite caring well for them.

Wilbur thus sought local help in the hopes of figuring out what was wrong, just for the refusal of lawyers, officials, journalists, politicians, and vets alike to let him know DuPont was responsible. After all, they either directly or indirectly employed almost everybody in their small town, leaving him with no choice but to document everything himself before approaching Robert Billot. This 56-year-old honestly had no idea who the latter was, that is, until family friend Alma Holland White told him her grandson Rob was actually a big-shot corporate attorney in Cincinnati.

The latter admittedly wasn’t interested in meeting the farmer since he specialized in defending corporates, yet he did so anyway as a favor to his grandmother, and now he’s genuinely glad he did. That’s because the several cardboard boxes of videotapes, photographs, and documents Wilbur had hauled in all made it clear DuPont’s local plant was disposing of toxic waste in the community. In one such video, he’d even asserted he’d lost 153 cows within a few short years, most of whom were gradually becoming railthin despite being fed well before they ultimately went a little crazy.

Though what’s worse is that DuPont knew what they were, per the class action lawsuit Robert had filed on Wilbur’s behalf — they knew, yet they continued anyways because it brought them profits. In the end, in September 2004, the company did settle, but it was too late as the lawyer (with Wilbur’s push) already planned on taking things further to ensure the entire world knew their truth. Nevertheless, it still wasn’t until 2012 that it finally came to light the chemicals this firm was releasing couldn’t be broken down by our bodies, and they also could cause kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, plus ulcerative colitis.

Wilbur Tennant Died Five Years After His Settlement

Image Credit: Anonymous/Find A Grave

By the time DuPont had agreed to settle Wilbur’s case, he and his wife, Sandy Knight Tennant, had reportedly both been diagnosed with cancer, just for it to increase their drive to pursue them. But alas, on May 14, 2009, the farmer sadly passed away at his residence from a heart attack — he was 67 at the time and still doing his best to provide for his loved ones in the only way he knew how. He was survived by his three brothers, sister, half-sister, wife of 34 years, two daughters, as well as their respective families, yet Sandy followed him on June 19, 2011, upon losing her battle with cancer. In other words, neither he nor his wife ever got the closure of hearing their ailments were likely DuPont’s fault.

Read More: Robert Bilott: Where is the ‘Dark Waters’ Lawyer Now?