By Kerry Kennedy
15 October 2009
I have heard about Chevron's Chernobyl in the Amazon for years, so I was delighted when I met Steve Donziger, an American attorney who has been working on the case since it was filed in 1993. He agreed to take me to the rainforest to see for myself. I have read hundreds of pages of documents, and seen numerous videos and photographs, of the damage done in Ecuador by Texaco and its mothership Chevron, but nothing could prepare me for the horror that I witnessed last week.
I saw open air, unlined waste pits, full of oil sludge, built and abandoned by Texaco, never operated by any other company. I held a dragonfly covered in oil in my hands, desperately and hopelessly trying to flutter its wings. I saw pig footprints in the mud next to the oily gunk, where it had eaten contaminated grass, and will soon be contaminating the children, women, and men, who in turn feed on Chevron's waste. I met a man whose home is just a few hundred yards from the pit. He told me he had 10 children, all of them have become sick, some covered with sores. He told me he has endured a stomach ache for over 8 years. His chickens have died, his pigs have died, he said nothing grows near his home anymore.
I saw another poisonous pit abandoned by Texaco in 1974. The pipes leading from that pit have clear liquid running from them, directly into a stream. When I put the liquid to my nose, it smelled like the gasoline I pump into my car, except this poison is not going into an automobile, it's going directly into the stream, which is the main source of drinking water for the people who live along its banks.
I saw enormous gas flares in the middle of the rainforest spewing venom into the air, poison which, because of the delicate ecosystem, will continue to cause damage for generations to come.
Texaco knew people would die because of what they were doing, and they ignored it. People have died. There are 1400 cancer deaths directly attributed to Texaco's waste. An entire group of indigenous people have been wiped out. What they did arguably amounts to criminally negligent homicide. We heard terrifying stories of the mistreatment by Texaco workers against the local population. Women raped. Shamans taken by helicopter to far mountain ranges, and dropped off to see if they could find their way home. Indians told that rubbing oil on their bald scalps would make their hair longer and thicker. This isn't just a crime which happened 30 years ago. Those pits are leeching oil into children's drinking water today. I met a man who told me his two children died after swimming in the contaminated water, one within 24 hours, the other writhed in agony for 6 months before his poor body succumbed.
Texaco built roughly 350 wells across 2,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest. From 1964 to 1990, it deliberately dumped over 18 billion gallons of toxic soup –- known as production water-- a mixture of oil, sulpheric acid, and other carcinogens into the streams and rivers where people collect drinking water, bathe, and children swim.
Texaco constructed over 900 oil sludge pits in the early, many the size of Olympic swimming pools. Unlike swimming pools, these pits were unlined with no concrete to protect the surrounding soils and waters from seepage. This allowed the poison to seep into the ground water, and, in a rainforest with heavy rainfall, they were uncovered, so the pollutants were constantly spilling out into surrounding forests and streams. Though Chevron claims Texaco cleaned up the mess, the meager remedies employed by the company only touched about 15 percent of these Olympian sludge pools, leaving 80 percent in their original highly toxic condition. And of the 15 percent, there appears to be evidence that whatever "clean up" was done was not done well, and might have been a fraud.
Texaco also burned contaminated gasses constantly, spewing a heavy dose of deadly poisons into the air that created "black rain" that would fall on the unprotected skin of indigenous people and local farmers.
Texaco's trucks dumped more oil waste on the roads where people walked, often in bare feet because they could not afford shoes. Imagine the burns from sticky black tar-like like substances that sticks to the feet baking in the hot sun along the equator. As an American, I am appalled that a corporation from our country would treat innocent people with such disdain, and I am confident that as more Americans gain awareness of this behavior, Chevron will be held accountable.
Beyond having caused the greatest environmental catastrophe in any country, by any corporation, in the history of the world, every day of continued delay in settling the lawsuit and establishing serious funding for remediation and care increases the human and environmental toll.
Chevron knows that it should and will ultimately be held accountable, but they are cynically placing their own economic interests in delay above the interests of the indigenous groups and local farmers they have permanently scarred.
However, I believe the economic equation will change, as institutional investors such as city, state, and union pension funds, which hold large ownership interests in Chevron, become aware of Chevron's economic and moral liability as well as the increasing public wrath against this behemoth.
This is not only the view of a human rights defender. It is a view shared by the likes of Orin Kramer, head of the New Jersey Pension system, and a though leader for institutional investors across the country. He joined us in Ecuador.
I welcome the opportunity to speak with the Chevron Board of Directors about this matter and today sent a letter to Board Chair David O'Reilly seeking dialogue.
Thank you very much,