By Richard C. Paddock, Sphere
14 January 2010
San Francisco, CA – The environmental group Amazon Watch is welcoming new Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson to his new post with a video and petition campaign urging him to clean up massive oil pollution in Ecuador.
The video shows residents of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador appealing directly for help from "Señor Watson" and inviting him to visit the polluted region.
"Look at what your company abandoned here, the company you now represent," an unidentified man says as he points to a waterway contaminated with oil.
"We suffer from a huge failure," residents say. "After the company came, it caused illness – cancer of the nose, of the throat, so many skin rashes, stomach pains. Children have died from the cancer this company caused."
Chevron, California's largest company, has long run a public relations campaign promoting itself as environmentally friendly. Its Web site says it is "finding newer, smarter, cleaner ways to power the world."
But the company has come under harsh criticism from environmentalists for its pollution and alleged human rights abuses in Nigeria and for extensive contamination of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador by Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001.
Chevron is now the defendant in a 17-year legal battle in U.S. and Ecuadorian courts alleging that the company spilled millions of gallons of oil and dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water in a disaster that some call the "Amazon Chernobyl."
If Chevron is found responsible, it could be liable for $27 billion in damages.
The company has been aggressive in defending itself in court and in the public arena. It contends that it is not responsible for the ecological calamity and that the fault lies with Petroecuador, a government-owned oil company. The state-run firm was part of a joint venture with Texaco from 1964 to 1992 and now operates the oil field.
Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said Texaco completed its share of restoration work in the Amazon during the 1990s before it was taken over by Chevron. He charged that Petroecuador continues to pollute the region but that Amazon Watch and other activist groups have focused attention on Chevron because it is an easier target.
"What you have today is groups like Amazon Watch blaming Chevron for another company's mess and the failures of the government of Ecuador to provide for the basic needs of its citizens," he said. "What they are doing with this campaign and the imagery is manipulative and exploitive."
Mitch Anderson of Amazon Watch counters that Chevron is responsible for the continuing contamination because its acquisition, Texaco, devised the "shoddy production system" that has been polluting the region for nearly 40 years.
Among the facilities installed by Texaco, he said, were more than 900 unlined pits in the rain forest where toxic oil waste was dumped. Despite Texaco's subsequent remediation program, he said, the pits were never properly cleaned up and oil contamination lies just beneath the surface even in inhabited areas.
"Texaco-now-Chevron systematically poisoned the water supply and left an epidemic of cancer in the region," Anderson said. "Chevron is involved in one of the world's largest oil-related litigations and is responsible for one of the world's largest oil-related ecological disasters."
The video of the Ecuadorians follows a letter sent to Watson last month by Atossa Soltani, founder and executive director of Amazon Watch, urging him to use his new post as CEO to alleviate suffering in the contaminated region.
Watson, a 30-year Chevron employee, took over Dec. 31.
"Mr. Watson, as you surely know, the situation on the ground is dire," she wrote. "Thousands of acres of once pristine rain forest have been devastated by oil pollution. More than 30,000 indigenous peoples and campesinos have been left without clean water to drink. Children play beside toxic waste pits. Young women have been ravaged by stomach and uterine cancer due to poisoned water."
Amazon Watch is asking supporters to sign an online petition calling on Watson to "clean up Chevron's toxic legacy in Ecuador," compensate victims and provide them with access to potable water and health care.
Soltani encouraged Watson to make his first visit to Ecuador and hear from victims of the contamination. Residents who appear in the video extend the same invitation.
"Come here to Ecuador, you'll be received well here, so you can see directly with your own eyes," they say. "Please do whatever you can to find a solution, to remediate, clean up and restore the areas affected by your company."