By Juan Forero / Morning Edition, National Public Radio
30 April 2009
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A judge is preparing to render a decision in a long-running, multibillion-dollar lawsuit filed by residents of Ecuador's Amazonian rain forest against Texaco for fouling their land.
In the lawsuit, filed in 1993, the plaintiffs charge that, throughout the 1970s and '80s, the American oil company so polluted a swath of northern Ecuador that hundreds died of cancer. The defendant, Chevron Corp. — which bought Texaco in 2001 — denies the accusations.
But a court-appointed expert agrees with many of the plaintiffs' charges and has assessed damages at $27 billion. Now, a judge in the small town of Lago Agrio, says he hopes to have a decision before the end of the year.
Plaintiffs: A Legacy Of Pollution
Donald Moncayo, an activist who works with the poor farmers and Indian plaintiffs in the case, takes visitors on what he calls "toxic tours."
After tramping through the jungle, Moncayo reaches a huge pool of oily sludge and sticks a long pole into the muck. He says this is a legacy of Texaco's quarter-century in Ecuador: pollution that affects tens of thousands of people who bathe and drink from rain forest waterways.
He says mud and other waste produced by drilling and production were dumped in the pit, and the toxins here and in hundreds of similar unlined pits leaked into the ground. A court-appointed geologist, Richard Cabrera, and his 14-member scientific team found barium, lead and other heavy metals in those pits.
Chevron disputes Cabrera's findings. The company wants his report thrown out, saying he is biased toward the plaintiffs.
All this happened in what was once virgin Amazonian jungle, the world's greatest biosphere and an area that still contains huge oil reserves.
The plaintiffs say Texaco, in 18 years of full-scale production, also dumped wastewater into rivers and that pipeline breaks spilled 17 million gallons of oil.
Pablo Fajardo, a 36-year-old lawyer, leads the plaintiffs' team. He grew up poor in the area; this is his first legal case.
Fajardo says his side has proved there was damage, that Chevron was responsible and that the company should pay.
Defendants: Texaco Acted Legally
Locally, the case has been called the trial of the century, and some of the hearings have been held in the jungle. Chevron does not dispute that pollution exists.
But Chevron lawyer Diego Larrea says it's Petroecuador — the state oil company, which still drills oil in the area — that is responsible for the pollution.
Larrea says Texaco adhered to Ecuadorian law. He also says Ecuador's government released the company of legal responsibility after a three-year cleanup a decade ago.
In the current trial, the plaintiffs charge that Texaco's cleanup was a fraud, and the current government of Ecuador agrees.
The original suit was filed against Texaco in 1993 in a New York court. But Chevron argued that the case be moved to Ecuador, saying Ecuadorian courts were impartial and professional.
In 2003, the trial was moved to a ramshackle court in Lago Agrio, a nondescript, dusty town near Colombia's lawless frontier.
The judge in the case, Juan Nunez, says he feels the pressure on his conscience. And he says he has to carefully consider the arguments both sides have offered — arguments laid out in 145,000 pages of evidence.
Texaco came to Ecuador in 1964. When it left nearly 30 years later, it had extracted 1.5 billion barrels and built Ecuador's oil industry from scratch.
The infrastructure is everywhere. Pipelines run alongside major roads. Pumping stations are located in clearings, carved out of the jungle.
And then there are pools of sludge.
The government says Petroecuador is not blameless. It, too, dumped wastewater intro waterways.
But the state oil company's past practices do not absolve Texaco, the government says. Texaco was the primary operator for years and the pollution left behind is close to where people live and where children go to school, the government claims.
Health Problems Abound Among Locals
Wilmo Moreta, a schoolteacher in the town of Shushufindi, says he suffered skin rashes and other ailments when Texaco operated in the area. He says he drank water from the Napo river, bathed in it and used its water for cooking. He now blames oil pollution for his problems.
Cabrera's team, though, goes further, linking 1,401 cancer deaths to oil production and laying most of the blame for the pollution on Texaco.
Chevron has countered Cabrera, the court-appointed geologist, by releasing a battery of studies that show cancer rates in the area are no higher than in other regions of Ecuador.
Chevron Disputes Report Findings
James Craig, a Chevron spokesman, says that the Cabrera report is "flawed in many ways."
"In our view, it's a fraudulent report that we've asked the court to toss out a number of times," he says.
Craig also says the methods Texaco's subsidiary, TexPet, used in Ecuador were common in the United States — and still are. Craig says that includes the use of unlined pits to hold sludge.
"To suggest that somehow TexPet was using obsolete technology or substandard methods at the time is a complete falsehood," he says.
States such as Texas permit unlined pits, but only for temporary use. In such instances, the waste must be disposed of eventually, often by re-injection back into the ground.
Case Wends Its Way Toward Resolution
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa squarely sides with the plaintiffs. He says Texaco left behind a mess. His government is also prosecuting two Chevron attorneys and seven former government officials who signed off on the cleanup in 1998.
Correa says that pools operated by Texaco remain open, with little having been cleaned up.
Craig, the Chevron spokesman, says Correa's comments show the company can't get a fair hearing — even though it was Chevron that originally petitioned to have the case transferred from the U.S. to Ecuador.
"Unfortunately, the case has deteriorated into a judicial farce, with the media circus put on by the plaintiffs on a regular basis, with the political pressure brought to bear on the court, with the government and political interference in this case," he says.
Indeed, Chevron is already talking about a possible appeal should it lose the case.
Meanwhile, in the jungle, residents wonder who will clean up the mess — or compensate them for their health problems.