Ecuador: Chevron-Texaco's toxic
by Joseph Mutti
May 10, 2006
The unhindered oil pollution of Ecuador's
pristine rainforest began in 1970 and lasted for over two decades.
When Texaco Oil walked out of the country with US$30 billion in
profits stashed in its pockets, it left a toxic legacy for 30,000
rainforest dwellers that was 30 times worse than the Exxon
Valdez disaster in Alaska.
From 1970 until 1992, the US corporation
dumped in excess of 18.5 billion gallons of acutely toxic "water
of formation" into more than 650 open and unlined pits, as
well as directly into the swamps, streams and rivers that make
up the Amazon rainforest of northern Ecuador. "Water of formation"
contains some of the most dangerous known chemicals, including
benzene, toluene, and Policyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).
The result has been what experts believe to be the worst case
of oil pollution on the planet and, after Chernobyl, possibly
the second-worst environmental catastrophe in human history.
In 2002, Chevron took over Texaco and
inherited its Ecuadorian devastation, but the company failed to
live up to CEO Dave O'Reilly's promise to "develop affordable,
reliable energy supplies in a safe, environmentally responsible
way", forcing five indigenous groups to file a class-action
lawsuit against the oil giant in 2003.
After years of dragging its feet in the
hope that the plaintiffs would tire or run out of money, Chevron
is now facing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit that many legal experts
believe will prevail. If so, it will be the first time in history
that a large oil company will be hit with a significant judgment
over environmental damages in the court of a developing nation.
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly,
Chevron does not deny that Texaco dumped the toxic waste into
the rainforest, but defends its position by maintaining that the
Ecuadorian government released it from further clean-up operations
after a fraudulent remediation program that did nothing to offset
the damage Texaco had done to the environment.
Of 178 water and soil samples collected
by Chevron's own experts, 132 - that's 98% - indicate the level
of contamination surpasses even lax Ecuadorian norms, and of 69
separate samples taken by the Amazon Defense Coalition, every
one showed extensive levels of toxic contamination.
Worse still, in a ''remediated'' site called Shushufindi Sur that
Texaco claimed had been cleaned up, the current level of toxicity
is a full 9000 times higher than Ecuadorian law allows and 90,000
higher than US law allows.
Texaco chose not to use a standard oil
industry practice of firing toxic waste back into the bored well
cavity in an operation called re-injection. It thus saved itself
between $1.5 and $4.5 billion in operation expenses in a conscious,
rapacious decision to choose profit over the lives of the local
population. Texaco's home state of Texas has laws requiring re-injection
that go back to 1919.
Secondly, Chevron-Texaco no longer conducts
business in Ecuador, so the enormous windfall pay-offs to corrupt
local politicians have dried up, and Ecuadorians have begun to
realise the magnitude of the ecological calamity that has befallen
The remediation program cost Texaco no
more than $40 million and basically involved covering open dump
sites with topsoil, allowing the toxic content of the waste pits
to continue seeping into the water table, contaminating the drinking
water of many thousands of rainforest inhabitants who have no
choice but to slowly poison themselves as they consume the water
and bathe in polluted streams. Aside from birth defects and a
high rate of child leukaemia, hundreds of people have already
died from cancers relating to the oil carcinogens, and many hundreds
more are expected to succumb.
The Amazon Defense Coalition, which represents
the five indigenous tribes in the lawsuit, estimates a comprehensive
clean-up of the rainforest would cost well over $6 billion. Luis
Yanza, who is one of the lead plaintiffs, has nothing but contempt
for the supposed remedial work performed by Texaco. "The
corrective work they say they performed does not exist",
he told Free Speech Radio in the US. "Water and soil samples
have been taken at those sites Chevron says have been cleaned
up, and the results show high toxic levels."
One of the attorneys on the joint Ecuadorian-US
legal team is New York-based Steve Donziger. He says that the
remediation work was more "a cover up than a clean up. They
just took dirt and ran it over the pits without cleaning them
out. You cannot live over a toxic waste pit without being exposed
to carcinogens. We learned that from Love Canal."
An official court report issued in February
of this year found that Chevron had left deadly carcinogenic contaminants
in a particular site that it claimed had been cleaned up. The
site, known as Sacha-53, was found to contain life-threatening
levels of lead, cadmium, barium and nickel as well as levels of
petroleum hydrocarbons over 100 times higher than legal levels
in the United States.
An independent environmental engineering
consultancy, E-Tech International, has determined that Chevron's
waste management practices in the Amazon would never have been
permitted in the US and that a like area in the US would not be
deemed fit for human habitation under current US environmental
Chevron, with its back to the wall, appears
to be reverting or acquiescing to more distasteful tactics of
intimidation - a sign of its desperation in the face of approaching
Yanza has received death threats, his
young daughter was almost kidnapped, his office was burgled, and
he is under constant military surveillance. In January, the Organization
of American States demanded that the Ecuadorian government provide
Yanza and three others with a guarantee of "life and physical
integrity". Yanza says the OAS measure is an important signal
that Chevron not be allowed to intimidate the court or plaintiffs.
After the ruling, Donziger told the media:
"It's sad that you have to approach an international body
to force the government of Ecuador to provide the protection necessary
to be sure the plaintiffs remain safe and that they be allowed
to exercise their right to bring such a lawsuit."
The threats are not without a precedent.
In 1981, Ecuador's popular president Jaime Roldos was killed in
a plane crash after taking on Texaco. Roldos had attempted to
wrest back control of oil deposits in his country so that all
future exploitation would benefit his people rather than US multinational
oil corporations. It is generally believed that he was assassinated
by the CIA.
One of the more contentious issues is
that the Chevron legal team operates from within a military base
in the jungle town of Lago Agrio where the trial is taking place.
Yanza believes that the threats against him and the other plaintiffs
arise from Chevron's association with the military. Chevron attorney
and spokesperson Rodrigo Perez insists that this is purely for
the protection of the Chevron officials against criminal activity
in the area. However, Donziger argues that in light of the physical
threats against the Amazon Defense Coalition plaintiffs, Chevron
should disassociate itself entirely from the Ecuadorian military.
Following the court's damning report in
February, Chevron actually hailed it as a victory. As Yanza commented:
"The Chevron people have spun the facts so fast they have
propelled themselves into a parallel universe completely disconnected
from the reality on the ground in Ecuador."
The US-based environmental group Amazon
Watch has called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to
investigate fraud allegations against Chevron for failing to disclose
the Ecuadorian lawsuit to shareholders. Amazon Watch executive-director
Atossa Soltani estimates the oil corporation's liability at $10-$20
billion if personal damages to the victims are included.
Chevron shareholders have begun to react.
At the company's annual general meeting in Houston on April 26,
a resolution drafted by one shareholder demanded an itemised accounting
of Chevron's legal and lobbying expenses in Ecuador, while another
called on the company to adopt a human rights policy in light
of the disaster in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Chevron's CEO was forced to directly face
representatives of the indigenous peoples whom he has chosen to
ignore. In a dramatic public relations nightmare for O'Reilly,
Emergildo Criollo, who represents the almost-extinct Cofan people
in the Ecuadorian rainforest, told him at the annual general meeting
that the very survival of his language, culture and people is
"I am here to ask you to live up
to your ethical responsibilities and clean up the contamination
that is destroying my people", said Criollo. O'Reilly chose
not give him the courtesy of a response.
[For more information, visit <http://www.chevrontoxico.com>
Joseph Mutti is a journalist who reports
for Free Speech Radio in the United States.]
From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006