Ecuadoran Villagers Believe High Rates of Cancer Are Tied to Petroleum Pollution, A Contention that Chevron Disputes
By Joan Kruckewitt, San Francisco Chronicle
11 December 2005
Taracoa, Ecuador - On the porch of an Amazonian village store, a shirtless man flicks a rag at flies.
"Does Maruja Garrido live here?" we ask.
No answer. He raises his eyes, then flicks his rag again.
A woman in a pink dress appears beside him. "Yes?" she asks warily, peering at us, two foreigners.
"We're looking for Maruja Garrido," I say quickly. "We're journalists, looking to interview people who have cancer." Photographer Lou Dematteis and I had just come from the village health center where a doctor had given us her name.
The woman's eyes moisten. She hesitates. We wait. Then she motions to her teenage daughter to fetch two plastic chairs, and we are invited to sit on the porch.
"I am Maruja, I'm 35, and I'm in the third stage of colon cancer," she says flatly. Then she tells us her story. She has sold her farm to pay the medical bills. Twice, she has taken the serpentine 10-hour bus ride up the Andes Mountains to Quito, the capital, to the only cancer hospital in the country, to have chemotherapy. She is supposed to go every 28 days, and, after chemotherapy, she'll start radiation. Her doctors won't tell her what her chances are; they just tell her to return.
"My husband had an accident. He can't work now, he's deaf. I have five children, and I run our store. If something happens to me ... ." She doesn't finish the sentence.
Her husband, the shirtless man, wanders over to look at us. Their children cluster around the counter. A customer comes inside and buys a Coke, then stays to listen.
Maruja's story is typical of those we heard as we searched one year ago for people with cancer in the Oriente, the Amazonian region of Ecuador.
The story goes back to 1967, when Texaco, a U.S. oil company that now is part of Chevron, discovered oil in northeastern Ecuador. Between 1971 and 1992 Texaco, in partnership with state-owned PetroEcuador, extracted more than 1.5 billion barrels of oil from this area.
Texaco dug nearly 300 wells, built processing facilities, pumping stations and a refinery. Texaco disposed of wastes from its work in a manner that plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit -- called Aguinda vs. Texaco -- contend is responsible for the area's high rate of cancer, an assertion the oil company disputes.
Plaintiffs' attorneys cite a series of health studies in publications such as the International Journal of Epidemiology and the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. One found that the cancer rate in the oil-drilling area was 150 percent higher than in other parts of Ecuador. Another found that the rate of leukemia in children there was three times higher than in other parts of Ecuador.
In 1993, the lawsuit was filed in federal court in New York on behalf of roughly 30,000 Ecuadorians. It claimed that the oil company had polluted their rain forest home and damaged their health by dumping hazardous wastes.
The suit, filed by the Philadelphia firm of Kohn, Swift and Graf, seeks $6 billion in cleanup costs. In 2001, Chevron, of San Ramon, acquired Texaco and with it the lawsuit. In 2003, the suit was refiled in Ecuador.
Chevron spokesman Jeff Moore recently declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Chevron earlier told The Chronicle that it didn't believe the plaintiffs had "ever provided any substantiated evidence to support their claims."
Chevron Chairman David O'Reilly said at last year's annual stockholder meeting that there are undoubtedly health problems in the Amazon, but they should not be blamed on his company.
He noted that Texaco spent $40 million cleaning up the region and, in 1998, received a release from further liability from Ecuador's government.
Court papers, studies and documents on Chevron's Web site, www.chevron.com, detail the company's contention that oil pollution is not a severe problem in the area and that Texaco's activities were not responsible for residents' sickness. Chevron maintains the main causes of disease in the area include poverty, poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and naturally occurring bacteria and parasites.
Samples taken from some wells, Chevron says, show only contamination from human and animal wastes, which, it notes, can cause illness in humans.
But the plaintiffs allege that toxic waste dumped by Texaco into rain forest rivers, wetlands and unlined pits the company dug near their wells polluted the bathing and drinking water of inhabitants, including five indigenous groups -- the Quechua, Siona, Cofan, Secoya and the Huaorani -- and the tens of thousands of settlers who had emigrated from the Andes Mountains, searching for work and land.
Maruja Garrido moved to Taracoa as a teenager in the 1980s. "My father's farm had several waste pits on it," she said. "We lived next to a stream, and we had no idea it was contaminated."
She said she gathered drinking water from the stream, pushing aside the rainbow-colored film on top and scooping up the "clean" water underneath. She washed the laundry there, sometimes returning home with black-spotted clothes. She ate fish caught from the oily streams.
Residents say Texaco also sprayed waste crude on the region's dirt roads to keep the dust down. Many people in the region, too poor to own shoes, walked barefoot on the roads. Maruja carried her shoes so she wouldn't ruin them, then cleaned her feet with diesel fuel.
Along the dirt roads run oil pipelines 2 feet in diameter. Occasionally, clearings appear where old oil wells stand idle next to waste pits that bubble and burp in the sun. In the nearby jungle, farmers and their children live. Some of them suffer from cancer or birth defects.
Miguel Yumbo, 37, of Rumipamba, a member of the Quechua indigenous group, says his son Jairo's deformed hand is the result of oil pollution. Two of Jairo's fingers are fused together.
"The doctors told me he was born like that because we always drank water from an oil-filled stream and because Texaco used to pass by our house spraying crude on the dirt highway," he tells us one afternoon.
The waste pits were hazardous for animals. Horses, cows, pigs, dogs and chickens fell into them, the local people say. When animals couldn't be saved, farmers killed them and ate them.
Two waste pits, two oil wells and a separation plant surrounded the house of Maria Patiño and her husband, who raised cattle in San Carlos. They couldn't figure out why their cattle miscarried, or, if calves were born, they had diarrhea and died. Later, they came to believe it was from drinking the salty formation waters the plant released into the stream.
Texaco's waste dumping sites are spread across an area the size of Rhode Island that contains major rivers that feed into the Amazon River in Brazil. The lawsuit contends that in 20 years of operations in Ecuador, Texaco dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into pits or into rivers. The oil company counters that it spent millions of dollars in cleanup efforts.
Modesto Briones, 45, of Parahuaco Dos, believes she got cancer from years of washing clothes in a contaminated river. There are three waste pits within 150 yards of her house. A sore on her toe, she says, developed into a cancerous ulcer, and doctors amputated her leg.
"I'm having a hard time now. I no longer leave the house," she tells us. In a year, she has left the house only once, to request an identification card.
In 1992, Texaco's concession rights ended, the company pulled out of Ecuador, and its operations reverted to the Ecuadorian state petroleum company. Many of the waste pits were covered with bulldozed trees and dirt.
Waste from oil operations contains identified carcinogens and can lead to skin disease, reproductive abnormalities, nerve damage and cancer. The waste is saturated with carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and xylene.
In the United States, these pits would probably be a Superfund site. But in this part of the Amazon, waste pits are often closer than the neighbors.
Juana Apolo, 53, of Comunidad San Francisco, a cook at a state oil camp, takes us to the whitewashed cemetery where her father, sister and brother are buried. All died of cancer. She says they lived near waste pits.
Dolores Morales, 49, of Sacha Central, lived 20 yards from an oil well and 50 yards from a waste pit. Five years ago, doctors discovered that her son, Pedro, 19, had three cancerous tumors: in his lungs, liver and on his leg. He died 10 months later.
"He really suffered," she says. "He begged them to amputate his leg, but the cancer had spread. He had a girlfriend. He said he didn't want to die, he wanted to keep on living."
Now, Dolores' 15-year old son, Jose, has leukemia. His testicles were removed, and he continues treatments whenever Dolores has money to take him to Quito for checkups. Research links long-term exposure to benzene to leukemia.
When photographer Lou Dematteis first visited Luz Maria Marin, 56, she was cradling her husband Angel Toala's head between her hands. He lay, gaunt, unmoving, in a hammock.
Some months later, when I visit, Luz Maria is a widow. She slumps in a chair, staring at the floor, crying. "In Quito, they diagnosed him with stomach cancer. The doctors said it was too late. In the last three months before he died, he couldn't do anything, he just lay in the hammock."
Texaco's oil well was 200 yards from her house, Luz Maria says. The separation station was nearby, and downstream was a lake where the dumped oil gathered. Dead fish floated in it, she says, and the nearby coffee bushes turned yellow, then died.
Back at the village store, Maruja tells us her first symptoms appeared seven years ago, when her head and legs began aching. The pain worsened. Doctors operated on her for an ectopic pregnancy, but she didn't improve.
At the cancer hospital in Quito, they finally discovered her tumor and removed it. Treatment is painful and expensive, she says, but, for the sake of her children, she has to continue.
"Here in Taracoa, so many people have died from cancer," Maruja says. "Two people were just buried, and two more are about to die." She begins to cry. "I'm waiting to see what God decides -- whether or not he will give me life. If not, well then, I may leave this world, even though it's before my time."
City Hall exhibit
An exhibit, "Crude Reflections: ChevronTexaco's Rainforest Legacy," features the work of photographers Lou Dematteis and Kayana Szymczak, and writer Joan Kruckewitt, including some of the photographs shown here. It is on display until Dec. 30 at San Francisco City Hall.
The show is sponsored by the city's Arts Commission Gallery and is supported by numerous groups, including Amazon Watch, an environmental advocacy group, which sponsored a similar exhibit last spring in San Ramon. Donations for medical expenses of residents of Ecuador's upper Amazon basin can be sent to: Peace/Amazon Medical Fund, 3201 Camino Tassajara, Danville, CA 94506.
Joan Kruckewitt is a Bay Area writer and the author of "The Death of Ben Linder; The Story of a North American in Sandinista Nicaragua" (Seven Stories Press, 1999). Lou Dematteis is a San Francisco photographer. His latest book of photographs is called "A Portrait of Vietnam" (W.W. Norton). Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.