By Kaelyn Forde, Al Jazeera America
10 April 2015
Videos allegedly leaked by a whistleblower at Chevron Corporation purport to show employees and consultants paid by the energy giant finding petroleum contamination at sites in the Ecuadorean Amazon that the company claimed had been cleaned up years earlier.
The videos, released by environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch, allegedly arrived at the nonprofit's office in 2011 with no return address and a note that read: "I hope this is useful for you in the trial against Texaco/Chevron. [Signed] A friend from Chevron." Amazon Watch said the videos show Chevron employees conducting "pre-inspections" in 2005 and 2006 to find clean soil samples ahead of court-monitored inspections.
The videos are the latest twist in a decades-long court battle between the California-based energy firm and plaintiffs from the Lago Agrio area of the Amazon. The plaintiffs, and their attorney Steven Donzinger, allege that an oil consortium run by Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001, polluted the rainforest for decades, causing serious health problems for the thousands of indigenous people in Ecuador's Oriente region.
In one of the videos, which Amazon Watch claims was filmed at the Shushufindi 21 site, a Chevron employee identified only as Rene, and a consultant from engineering firm URS identified only as Dave, can be seen laughing about finding petroleum in a soil sample they have taken:
Rene: "Nice job, Dave. Give you one simple task: don't find petroleum."
Dave: "Who picked the spot, Rene?"
Rene: "Don't, don't find petroleum."
Dave: "Who picked the spot, Rene? Who told us where to drill, Rene?"
Rene: "My fault? I'm the customer. I'm always right. Where's that URS attitude that the customer is always right?"
Amazon Watch told Al Jazeera America that the videos are "smoking-gun evidence of Chevron's corruption."
"We have known that these sites were not remediated all along, that they [Chevron] had just pushed dirt over top of them. We knew they were contaminated, but the big thing was that in these videos, they are actually admitting it," said Paul Paz y Miño, director of outreach at Amazon Watch.
"There's no confusion that these are the sites that they claimed to remediate, and that these are videos their employees made themselves showing the contamination was still there and joking about it," Paz y Miño added.
"We are calling on our country's prosecutors to use these videos as evidence in an investigation to determine if these individuals and those who directed them violated any criminal laws," Humberto Piaguaje, Secoya leader and representative of the Union of Affected Peoples, said in a statement.
Chevron does not deny the videos belong to the company. In a February 2013 letter from its attorneys, "Chevron demanded that you [the plaintiffs' law firm] promptly return the improperly obtained videos."
But a spokesman for Chevron told Al Jazeera America the videos have been taken out of context.
"These edited video clips demonstrate the process used to identify the perimeters of pits at oil field sites, which is standard practice in environmental testing," wrote Morgan Crinkler, a spokesman in Chevron's Policy, Government and Public Affairs division, in an email. "A variety of samples were taken inside and outside the pits to determine their borders. There was nothing 'secret' about this process, and pre-inspection sampling was performed by the plaintiffs as well."
Paz y Miño said it's clear that one of the videos shows the Shushufindi 21 site; the video begins with a map, and Paz y Miño said advocates recognize the local residents being interviewed. But Chevron's spokesman said it is not possible to know which sites are being tested in the videos. Texaco's consortium also included the state-owned oil company Petroecuador.
"However, these edited clips do not indicate what site was being tested or whether the site was the responsibility of Texaco or Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company. The judgment against Chevron in Ecuador has been found by a U.S. federal court to be the product of fraud. If there was evidence to support their claims against Chevron, the plaintiffs and their lawyers would not have had to resort to bribery, extortion, ghostwriting and other corrupt means," Crinkler wrote in an email.
In 2011, an Ecuadorean court found Chevron guilty and ordered it to pay $19 billion, at the time one of the largest environmental judgments in history. Chevron has insisted that a $40 million cleanup by Texaco and an agreement Texaco signed with the government of Ecuador in 1998 had absolved Chevron of liability.
In 2013, the ruling against Chevron was upheld by Ecuador's highest court, with the amount Chevron was forced to pay reduced to $9.5 billion.
But the case took a different turn in March 2014 when a federal judge in New York ruled in favor of Chevron, blocking plaintiffs from using U.S. courts to collect the $9.5 billion judgment.
In his nearly 500-page ruling, Judge Lewis Kaplan did not deny the existence of pollution in the Amazon, but said Donzinger and the other attorneys working with him had used "corrupt means" in their case against Chevron, including submitting fraudulent evidence, coercing a judge and paying a consulting firm to "ghost-write" a court-appointed expert's report. Kaplan also wrote that Amazon Watch allowed Donzinger to draft some of its press releases. He added that there was "no ‘Robin Hood' defense to illegal and wrongful conduct."
"The Court assumes that there is pollution in the Oriente. On that assumption, Texaco and perhaps even Chevron — though it never drilled for oil in Ecuador — might bear some responsibility," Kaplan wrote. "So even if Donziger and his clients had a just cause — and the Court expresses no opinion on that — they were not entitled to corrupt the process to achieve their goal."
Donzinger was not immediately available for comment.
On April 20, Donzinger and the other attorneys are slated to appeal Kaplan's verdict in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Amazon Watch said that while the videos will not be heard in court, posting them ahead of the hearing was important. There is also litigation against Chevron on behalf of Ecuadorean plaintiffs pending in Canada.
Humberto Piaguaje, Secoya leader and representative of the Union of Affected Peoples, reacted to the latest news. "We are calling on our country's prosecutors to use these videos as evidence in an investigation to determine if these individuals and those who directed them violated any criminal laws," he said in a statement.
"We think it is important that the world see these videos now. The people who are interviewed in these videos, they are still living with contamination, they are still drinking the same water, and they are still getting sick and dying from it," Paz y Miño said.
"In those videos, the people are telling Chevron that the water they have to drink is contaminated. But rather than help them, Chevron turns around and says these people are extortionists and this is a fraud. It's bad enough to know about it in 2005 and do nothing. It's adding insult to injury to turn around almost a decade later and point the finger at the very people who are still suffering and call them criminals and extortionists," Paz y Miño added.