Ecuadoreans Seek Billions from ChevronTexaco in a Widely Watched Environmental Justice Case
By Niki Woodard, San Francisco Bay Guardian
12 December 2003
In an environmental justice lawsuit with major international implications, ChevronTexaco is battling plaintiffs representing 30,000 residents of northeastern Ecuador who claim they were harmed by the toxic mess the San Ramon-based oil giant left in their communities.
The case, Aguinda v. Texaco, is unusual not just for the massive scale of the pollution, but also because it could be among the first significant instances in which a U.S-based multinational corporation is held to account by a third world court.
Though it was originally filed in 1993 in a New York federal court on behalf of the Ecuadoreans affected by ChevronTexaco's 20-year oil-drilling operations in the Amazon, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled in May 2003 that the proper forum for the lawsuit is in Ecuador. ChevronTexaco now sits as defendant in a $6.1 billion case that has been hailed as one of the most important environmental lawsuits in history.
Steven Donziger, a plaintiff attorney in the case, told the Bay Guardian, "This is the worst oil-related ecological catastrophe in the world." He claims the lawsuit is historic because it's the first time the Latin American courts have tried a case of "this environmental magnitude."
UC Hastings international law professor Joel Paul told us, "This could send a powerful message to U.S. corporations ... [that] avoiding U.S. courts may not prove an advantage at all."
Paul said that it typically behooves large multinational corporations to force cases into developing countries where legal systems cannot handle the magnitude of such complex cases, and that these corporations can significantly decrease their financial responsibility by avoiding the punitive damages enforced in U.S. court rulings.
He drew a parallel between this case and the 1984 Union Carbide one in Bhopal, India, where Union Carbide was hit with a larger settlement than it would have received in the United States for the plant's catastrophic chemical release. The India case was the most significant such ruling ever, but the Ecuador case involves the kind of ongoing pollution more common in the developing world than the deadly Bhopal incident.
"Ecuador may lead the way for other developing countries to vindicate their rights against multinational corporations," Paul told us. "To tackle a huge multinational corporation like this is a daring move. It takes a certain amount of guts."
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Many Bay Area nonprofit organizations and activists have been involved with the lawsuit against ChevronTexaco, coordinating protests as well as delegate missions to and from Ecuador.
In May, AmazonWatch facilitated the journey of 12 Ecuadorean indigenous people to San Ramon to raise awareness of the Amazon situation. Last month a delegation of East Bay religious and community leaders spent two weeks in the Amazon to witness the effects and extent of the damage and to seek alternative methods of resolution.
On Dec. 16, San Ramon Valley community leaders - Rev. Steve Harms, Rev. Margareta Dahlin Johansson, and Rabbi Dan Goldblat - met with ChevronTexaco's Corporate Responsibility Team to initiate dialogue and further research on the issue in the Amazon. Harms told us, "There is a willingness to explore what we can do. It was a very good beginning." The two parties have agreed to meet again in January.
The nonprofit group CorpWatch issued a report noting, "During the 20-year period, Texaco pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil from Ecuador - most of it bound for California markets. By the time the company pulled out, environmentalists estimate that Texaco had dumped more than 19 billion gallons of waste [water] and spilled 16.8 million gallons of crude oil, 1 1/2 times the amount spilled by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez."
ChevronTexaco spokesperson Jeff Moore told us the company does not agree with these numbers, yet would not provide its own numbers. He noted that the company has spent $40 million on environmental remediation and that in 1998 "the [Ecuador] government inspected, accepted, and released TexPet [Texaco Petroleum] from future responsibility."
But plaintiffs in the suit say the company's cleanup efforts are woefully inadequate. Harms said he has seen open toxic waste pits with sludge up to 10 feet deep. He also said he witnessed several of the "remediated" sites where two to three feet of dirt covers the pits. Additionally, he noted evidence of oil polluting the streams and rivers, which are the only sources of water for many Ecuadoreans.
It is these types of discrepancies that define the case as a tangle of conflicting qualitative and quantitative interpretations, scientific studies, and laws.
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Cristobal Bonifaz, chief plaintiff attorney, told us that Ecuador passed a law called La Gestacíon Ambiental in 1999. It is comparable to the U.S. 1970 Superfund Act, mandating a cleanup of environmental contamination. He contends that the law is intended to apply retroactively and that there is no statute of limitations.
Moore counters that "we certainly believe that laws passed in 1999 cannot be applied" to this case now. ChevronTexaco has repeatedly tried to dismiss the lawsuit. It claims that allegations made against the company have not been supported with any credible, substantiated scientific evidence.
However, Petroecuador (the national Ecuadorean oil company) and Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (Amazon Defense Front, consisting of 17 Ecuadorean community leaders) conducted a survey of 1,017 families from April to August 2003. It found that 957 were affected by such diseases as stomach, pelvic, breast, skin, and liver cancers as well as respiratory and vaginal infections, which they attributed to waste pool toxins. The report identified 323 wells and 627 waste pools carrying toxic chemicals such as lead, benzene, and mercury.
The first stage of the trial took place in the small town of Lago Agrio in the northeastern region of Ecuador from Oct. 21 to 29, 2003. Judge Alberto Guerra will spend the next several months visiting 50 sites that both the defense and plaintiffs have selected as evidence in support of their claims. A decision is expected in September 2004.
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