Texaco's impact on the environment takes several forms. The major sources of contamination from its operations are:
- 18 billion gallons of wastewater, called "produced water," dumped into surface streams.
- The construction of 916 open-air, unlined toxic waste pits in the forest floor.
- Release of contaminants through gas flaring, burning, and spreading oil on roads.
"The stream was 50 meters from our house and chemicals were dumped into it. Oh, it stank! The water ran like a natural stream, but it was warm toxic waste water. We had headaches, dizziness, stomachaches.... Our children loved to fish and swim in the river. They came home covered in crude. We fried the fish they caught and the fish tasted like diesel."
– Shuar indigenous man living near Texaco Auca oil field
One of the primary sources of contamination from Texaco's operations is so-called produced water. While operating in Ecuador, Texaco dumped 18 billion gallons of this toxic wastewater directly into surface streams and rivers. The crude oil contained in these production byproducts is more than 30 times greater than the entire volume of crude spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Produced water, sometimes called "formation water," is brackish water from within an underground oil formation that is pumped to the surface along with crude oil. Although the water can then be separated from oil by technological means, this separation is never perfect, and so produced water frequently contains petroleum as well as a number of toxic heavy metals. Produced water is also salty, often much saltier than seawater, and is extremely hot, rendering it harmful to aquatic life. For these reasons, it is standard practice in the oil industry to reinject produced water into underground wells where it cannot contaminate surface streams or groundwater.
Produced water has long been recognized as toxic, and its dumping was banned in many US states by the time Texaco operated in Ecuador, including laws in Louisiana in 1942 and Texas in 1967. Reinjection was already the industry standard by the 1970s. Texaco, in fact, obtained patents in 1971 and 1974 on state-of-the-art reinjection technology, demonstrating that it was no stranger to the concept. Yet in Ecuador, the company chose to simply dump toxic water into surface streams to save money.
When Texaco began dumping produced water, local people who depend on the rivers for bathing, drinking, and cooking began reporting skin rashes and other ailments. Furthermore, many fish have disappeared from the rivers around the oil concession area. This has contributed to dire poverty among indigenous Ecuadorians who used to depend on fish as a major source of nutrition.
"We bought this farm which is surrounded by two [Texaco] open waste pits. So many animals fell in: chickens, dogs, watusas, rabbits. We pulled them out and cleaned them, but they were covered with sludge, and died anyway."
– Woman from San Carlos, who died of uterine cancer in 2006
Texaco constructed hundreds of unlined, earthen waste pits for its oil operations in Ecuador. These pits allow toxic waste to leach into surrounding soil, and they overflow in heavy rainstorms, sending oil into rivers. For this reason, US states have laws requiring that pits have impermeable liners (for example, concrete). Louisiana and Texas, two major oil-producing states, passed such laws in the 1930s.
Texaco's waste pits have contaminated groundwater, affecting local residents' wells. Overflowing oil is carried into the region's rivers. Animals die by stumbling into pits or otherwise coming into contact with crude oil and oil wastes. Many of these pits were built in close proximity to inhabited areas. Simply standing near a waste pit, it is possible to inhale vapors which include toxic gases.
To worsen matters, most of the pits that have been abandoned in the region have not been cleaned up. Texaco claimed that it was only responsible for remediating 37.5% of the waste pits in the mid-1990s when it left Ecuador. Even if one accepts this conclusion, it is clear that the pits Texaco claimed to "remediate" were not in fact cleaned up. Most often, the company simply shoveled dirt over the top, planted grass, and left the oil buried rather than removed. Chevron now claims that the oil is in a "degraded state" and cannot leach out or harm anyone, but oil continues to ooze to the surface of closed pits, and has sickened animals as well as people. Some residents have even built their houses on top of these toxic waste pits, having been told they were clean.
As with its handling of produced water, by using unlined pits Texaco put the health of Ecuadorian citizens and their environment at risk in order to save money. This cold economic rationale is demonstrated by the conclusion of a Texaco official in a 1980 internal letter that "the current [unlined] pits are necessary for efficient and economical operations of our drilling ... operations. The total cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be $4,197,958.... It is recommended that the pits neither be lined or filled."
"Some of the oil wells here have flares that burn off gas. The smoke rises, and when the rains come, black rain with a rusty smell falls back to earth, contaminating the land and the water."
– Man living near Texaco Parahuaco #2 oil well
While water and soil contamination from waste pits and dumping of produced water are by far the primary sources of environmental damage from Texaco's operation, there are other ways in which local people and wildlife were exposed to dangerous contaminants. Texaco burned the surface of some of its waste pits, using horizontal gas flares. This practice leads to the release of noxious gases into the atmosphere, including benzene, a carcinogen.
Texaco also routinely spread oil on roads in the area, as a means of reducing dust. Compounds within crude oil can evaporate and be inhaled by those traveling on foot on the roads. Furthermore, in heavy rain, oil would wash into streams and rivers.
"To cut down on the dust, Texaco used to spray oil on the dirt road, then scrape it with big machines, and the road was then like asphalt. But when the sun shone, the road began to break apart, and oil bubbled up, and when it rained, oil washed out of it."
– Man living near Texaco Auca oil field