By Aaron Selverston, KTVU News
13 April 2008
SAN FRANCICSO -- An attorney representing thousands of Amazonian forest-dwellers in a class-action lawsuit against Chevron told KTVU Monday that the oil giant is engaging in a "misinformation campaign" in response to two Ecuadorian activists winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
"They're facing a multi-billion dollar settlement, which is why they're trying to hide this fact from shareholders," said Steve Donziger, an attorney in the case.
Chevron is "disappointed" in the award decision, according to spokesman Don Campbell.
The Goldman Prize is "giving credit to someone who doesn't deserve to be in the company of past winners," Campbell told KTVU.
The Ecuadorian men, Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza, won the prize for leading a community-driven legal battle against Texaco-now owned by Chevron-after nearly 17 million gallons of oily wastewater was dumped into the pristine Ecuadorian Amazon, leading to what has been called one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history.
Fajardo and Yanza brought their class-action lawsuit against Texaco on behalf of the 30,000 indigenous inhabitants of the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. The plaintiffs claim that these inhabitants have suffered from a litany of health effects as a result of the dumping, including dramatically increased incidences of skin disease, respiratory ailments, reproductive disorders and a cancer rate seven times higher than the rest of the country's population.
They also claim that the regional devastation includes more than two million acres of deforestation.
In May 2003, the 30,000 plaintiffs, led by Fajardo's legal team, filed a lawsuit in Ecuador's northern Amazon, demanding that Chevron pay for a complete cleanup, including removal of all formation waters, debris and equipment; remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands; recuperation of fauna, flora and aqueous life; and monitoring and improvement of the health of the inhabitants.
Chevron has also enlisted veteran PR crisis manager Sam Singer to aid in what he describes as a "counter offensive" against Fajardo and the Goldman Prize. In a statement, he said the organization "got fooled" by Fajardo and his "cohort," Yanza.
The story, he says, is taking an "only-in-San-Francisco twist."
The San Ramon-based corporation will try to contain the story through an orchestrated advertising campaign over the coming week, including full page advertisements in the The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle.
The Goldman Prize claims that by Chevron's own estimates, between 1964 and 1990, nearly 17 millions gallons of oil were dumped into soils and waterways along with another 20 billion gallons of formation waters-wastewaters and sludge brought to the surface by the drilling process. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled just over 10 million gallons of oil.
Chevron disputes those numbers, however, saying they were given to The Goldman Prize by the plaintiffs and not by their own scientists.
According to its website, Chevron says that it is "sympathetic to the plight of the citizens of the Oriente," but that the people living in the region face no oil-related health risks.
The Goldman Prize says the residents inhabiting the region continue to drink water that has been deemed contaminated by experts involved in the case. In some areas, they say, all water sources are contaminated and few fish survive in the rivers.
Chevron is also deflecting responsibility for any further cleanup to Ecuador-based Petroecuador, the state-run oil company and a partner in the project at the time. Chevron claims that their portion of the cleanup was completed in accordance with Ecuadorian law and was "signed off" by university researchers there.
Donziger, however, says that Chevron's remediation efforts captured less than one percent of the waste.
Chevron does not deny dumping formation waters or oil in the region, but says the resulting contamination has not harmed the inhabitants.
A judge issued an order to begin assessing the damages, and earlier this month an independent expert recommended Chevron pay $8.3-$16 billion in remediation.
Chevron has called the trial "a farce," and the court-appointed expert "biased."
That expert, Richard Cabrera, was, according to the Amazon Defense Coalition, "stalked by 25 Chevron lawyers and security agents," leading the trial judge to order security agents to keep Chevron representatives away from Cabrera so he could complete his field work without interference or fear of intimidation.
Cabrera told the judge in a written statement that "my life, the lives of my family and the lives of the technicians and other helpers working on the forensic investigation are in grave danger."
Cabrera's office in Quito was reportedly burglarized on December 13, 2007, and his laptop and numerous files were stolen.
Yanza, Fajardo, their families and a number of their colleagues have also reportedly become targets of death threats, harassment and intimidation. Fajardo's brother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed just months after he joined a legal team; no investigation has taken place and no one has been arrested for the homicide.
The case will undoubtedly be carefully scrutinized by Chevron's new top lawyer, William Haynes, a close friend of Vice President Dick Cheney, who quietly resigned as the Pentagon's general counsel in February to take the new job.
Haynes remains in the spotlight of a Senate investigation into allegations of abuse to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, following the disclosure of a March 2003 Justice Department memo concluding that federal laws against torture, assault and maiming would not apply to the oversees interrogation of terror suspects.
That memo was originally requested by Mr. Haynes, and utilized by him, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Security of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to justify harsh interrogation practices during those interrogations.