ECUADOR: Chevron-Texaco's toxic legacy
Pits the size of football fields filled with a choking sludge of oil and dead animals. Children suffering from leukaemia at four times the national average. Birth defects and miscarriages soaring. Drinking water polluted by carcinogens for hundreds of square kilometres.
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 their country.
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 law.
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 defeat.
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 at risk.
"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.
From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
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