Advocates Press on in Chevron's Ecuador Contamination Case

Despite a legal setback, advocates cite “overwhelming” evidence of Chevron contamination in Ecuador – especially the results of Chevron’s own tests

By Matthew Heller, MintPress
20 May 2014

Los Angeles, CA – With Chevron Corp. recently having won a major victory in its marathon legal battle over environmental pollution claims in Ecuador, advocates for indigenous Amazonian farmers are trying to refocus attention on evidence showing the extent of Chevron's alleged toxic contamination of the rain forest.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan gave the company its victory in March by ruling that attorney Stephen Donziger and his legal team representing Ecuadorians engaged in a conspiracy and criminal conduct to force Chevron to settle the pollution case.

Even if Chevron was responsible for pollution in Ecuador's Amazonian region, Donziger and his clients "were not entitled to corrupt the process to achieve their goal," Kaplan said in barring Donziger and his associates from seeking to enforce in the United States a $19 billion judgment – later reduced to $9.5 billion – that was awarded against Chevron in February 2011 by an Ecuadorian court.

Shortly before the court announced the judgment, Chevron had sued Donziger and several environmental groups for civil racketeering and fraud, among other claims.

Supporters of the Ecuadorians say the scientific evidence that Chevron contaminated land in its former concession area by using substandard drilling practices to minimize costs and maximize profit is overwhelming.

Soil test results that Chevron itself submitted to the court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, "suggest the company's guilt and blow up its alternative narrative that it is the victim rather than the indigenous peoples and villagers living in the rainforest," Karen Hinton, a former public relations consultant for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, wrote in a May 9 column for The Huffington Post.

Chevron's tests at the Sacha 94 and Sacha 57 well sites in Ecuador, Hinton said, showed levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons – a measurement of toxic and, in some cases, carcinogenic chemicals and metals in soil – that were almost nine times greater than what is permitted under Ecuadorian law.

Also found in the environment were illegal qualities of benzene, barium, cadmium and lead – all substances that are toxic and dangerous to human health.

"The vast majority of test results from the Ecuador trial support what the villagers in the former Chevron concession area always have alleged: Chevron contaminated their land, using substandard drilling practices to minimize costs and maximize profit," Hinton wrote.

A website operated by the Amazon Watch environmental group posted test results earlier this month, noting that Texaco – which was acquired by Chevron in 2011 – claimed to have cleaned the Sacha 94 and Sacha 57 well sites as part of a remediation agreement with Ecuador. Chevron has argued in Ecuador and U.S. courts that the agreement releases it from any liability.

"Chevron's own test results show that the remediation itself was inadequate at best and, most likely, fraudulent," ChevronToxico claimed.

Economic extortion

The original judgment against Chevron was the largest ever awarded in an environmental lawsuit.

"This is the first time that a small developing country has had power over a multinational American company," said Donziger.

Chevron called the judgment "illegitimate and unenforceable" and launched its counterattack by filing a lawsuit in New York accusing Donziger of fraudulently obtaining the judgment by, among other means, manufacturing a "wave of public criticisms of Chevron."

Toward that end, the suit said, Donziger recruited Hinton to "create and manage" a "campaign of false and misleading public statements."

Hinton has defended herself against Chevron's accusations, saying in a post on Politico that "hard-hitting press releases" do not amount to economic extortion.

"Chevron has charged that the Ecuadorian ‘conspirators' and their ‘co-conspirators,' like me, manufactured evidence about the contamination, and committed fraud," she wrote. "I find this utterly preposterous and assumed we would be allowed to aggressively refute and defend against these charges in court. We were not."

During the trial of Chevron's fraud case, Hinton noted, Judge Kaplan "refused to allow any testimony into the record that would prove we did not lie about the contamination," including evidence that Texaco "built hundreds of huge, unlined pits to store permanently pure crude and toxic water left over from oil exploration at well sites."

While Kaplan has barred the Ecuadorian plaintiffs from collecting the $9.5 billion judgment in the U.S., they have filed enforcement actions in other countries where Chevron has assets, including Brazil, Canada and Argentina.

"[N]o court that respects the rule of law will let the oil giant off the hook, when it sees the results of [Chevron's own] contamination tests," Hinton forecast in The Huffington Post.

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