ChevronToxico

Oil troubles in Ecuador

An indigenous group is battling Chevron in court over contamination from decades of drilling. OTIS HART breaks down the case some call 'ChevronToxico.'

By Otis Hart, Associated Press
28 September 2006

Robinson Yumbo is happy when it rains.

Yumbo lives just miles from the equator, but heat isn't the issue. From his thatched house on stilts, he stares out into the lush Amazonian jungle, so the state of the flora isn't the concern, either.

Robinson Yumbo is happy when water falls from the sky because he can no longer drink what flows from the earth. He lives in northern Ecuador, where decades of drilling have uncovered a whole lot of oil -- and even more trouble.

DAMAGED BY OIL

The Cofan nation, an indigenous people from the Ecuador-Colombia border region, is part of a class-action suit that claims Texaco was careless when it drilled for oil between 1964 and 1992, and that the area remains badly polluted.

Officials with Texaco -- which merged with Chevron in 2001, later dropping the Texaco name -- insist that the company has fulfilled its obligations and that state-run oil company Petroecuador should be held responsible for any additional cleanup.

One thing that no one denies is that oil exploration crippled the Ecuadorean Amazon's ecosystem.

The small community of Cofan Dureno, home to just 415 people, is at the center of the $6 billion lawsuit.

"It's been a radical change since I was young," Yumbo said. "I remember, for instance, going out as a child with my father to fish, something that is not possible anymore. The contamination here has affected not only the fish but the animals. We have far, far fewer animals here than we did when I was a child."

The lawsuit claims that Texaco tried to save money by putting wastewater into unlined pits, rather than injecting it deep underground where the oil came from.

During the 28 years Texaco spent in Ecuador, more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste was leaked into the water table, according to the advocacy group Amazon Watch; Petroecuador, the state-run oil company, believes that total included 16.8 million gallons of actual oil.

For comparison's sake, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989. (Although, of course, that happened all at once, not over a period of many years.)

WORRIES ABOUT HEALTH

Chevron agreed to clean up many of the pits in 1999, spending $40 million in the process. But the people living in the infected areas still can't drink water from the numerous natural springs or wells they've dug. The Ecuadorean government has filed a fraud lawsuit in the United States claiming that Texaco misrepresented the results of its remediation efforts and failed to spend enough money to cure the region's ills.

While lawsuits wind their way through the legal system, Yumbo continues to collect rainwater for his family.

"I have five children and I'm very worried for their future," Yumbo said. "It's very complicated nowadays to have children here. There are many strange illnesses that now affect us, illnesses that we do not understand because they are not part of our culture."

A study conducted in 2002 found that tribes living in provinces where Texaco operated are more likely to develop cancer than people living in other parts of the country. According to the Manuel Amunarriz Institute of Epidemiology and Community Health, larynx cancer is 30 times more likely, while liver and skin cancer rates are 15 times higher.

Mariana Jimenez lives next to Texaco's first well, near the oil town of Lago Agrio ("Sour Lake"). The 65-year-old grandmother has had a backyard view of the land's metamorphosis from what she calls a "botanical jungle garden" to a tropical wasteland.

"The water we drink, bathe and cook in is contaminated," she said. "All we want is for Texaco to clean this up. And we want (Ecuador's) institutions to get this taken care of quickly."

A RESOLUTION NEARS?

Jimenez's wishes may be closer to coming true than ever before.

Superior Court Judge German Yanez last month canceled more than 60 upcoming field inspections, which another judge had ordered to take place three times a month. (Forty-two such inspections had already taken place.) That move theoretically shortened the trial by almost two years and allowed both parties to move toward the last evidentiary phase, which should begin next month.

Chevron media relations adviser Kent Robertson said the company disagreed with Yanez's decision. He also said the 1999 cleanup worked.

"So far, 99 percent of soils collected from areas remediated by Texaco meet required standards, demonstrating that remediated areas pose no threat," Robertson said. "Scientific data taken from 140 soil samples shows that no remediated areas contain unsafe levels of potentially harmful petroleum compounds. Chevron has submitted 77 drinking water samples and the results show that all meet WHO (World Health Organization) and U.S. EPA limits for hydrocarbons and metals.

"In short, Texaco's remediation was successful."

Steven Donziger, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, claims that most water samples taken during the trial don't meet Ecuadorean legal standards or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

"The only reason Chevron claims this body of evidence poses no harm is they use inflated standards that are literally 100 to 1,000 times more lenient than U.S. and Ecuadorean norms," Donziger said.

Lawyers on both sides will have a chance to make their cases during final arguments, which should come next year. No matter which way Yanez rules, the case will likely end up before Ecuador's Supreme Court.

Until then, Yumbo will continue to bottle his own water and pray that his children remain healthy.

"I am optimistic -- although it's relative -- that we will be able to clean up our communities," he said. "We have hidden nothing. Everything is obvious, the evidence is there. We have confidence that any court will see its way to providing a judgment in our favor and giving us justice."

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