By Charlotte Mackenzie, Latin Correspondent
19 June 2015
Chevron's decades-old dispute with Ecuadorean authorities continues to drag on, in what environmental experts have termed "Chernobyl in the Amazon."
The company faces upwards of US$8 billion in damages, following a 2011 ruling, for dumping nearly 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams used by thousands of people in the Amazon basin and beyond for drinking, bathing and fishing.
Chevron is also charged with abandoning hundreds of unlined, open waste pits filled with crude, sludge and oil drilling chemicals, in an area said to be three times the size of Manhattan, since the company left Ecuador in 1992.
The American plaintiffs' lawyer, Steven Donzinger, rose to fame that year for winning a sky-high US$18.2 billion suit against the oil giant, adding a twist in the tale. The case has since progressed far beyond those decades-old actions, piling up mountains of paperwork among a now-complex web of lawyers, oil company workers and environmental activists.
In 1964, Texaco, (now Chevron), looked to Ecuador for new exploration opportunities. The company founded the town of Lago Agrio in the east of the country, then home to the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani indigenous tribes.
For Ecuador's government, this move hailed the dawn of times of economic change, foreign investment and improved infrastructure links. The reality, however, appears to have been far bleaker.
At the height of its operations, Texaco was dumping an estimated 4 million gallons of produced water daily — a practice that had been outlawed in U.S. oil-producing states including Louisiana, Texas, and California, decades before the company commenced its Ecuador drilling operations. Texaco saved an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced from its Ecuador waste disposal methods.
As Chevron continues its entanglement in the ongoing trial, new video evidence has come to light related to the firm's activities in Ecuador. Company employees appear on film, joking as they extract heavily polluted soil samples.
"This is smoking gun evidence that shows Chevron hands are dirty — first for contaminating the region, and then for manipulating and hiding critical evidence," said Paul Paz y Miño, Amazon Watch's director of outreach, of the video.
Chevron's reaction to the film appeared on the company's website, where the firm states it has "never operated in Ecuador" — technically accurate, since the company operating in Ecuador at the time of the violations was Texaco, later acquired by Chevron. Chevron argues that Petroecuador failed to complete proper clean-up operations after taking over from Texaco in the early ’90s. The firm also states that Chevron was itself denied justice, as the trial was not completed in the international arbitration tribunal in the Hague.
"The tribunal has already ruled that the Republic of Ecuador released TexPet – and therefore Chevron – from liability for all public interest or collective environmental claims through agreements signed in the 1990s."
However, with free and public access to the compelling videos on YouTube, it will be interesting to see how the trial progresses.
In 2014, in a controversial development, a U.S. federal court judge sided with Chevron and overruled the 2011 decision, arguing that it was obtained through "corrupt means."
The Chevron case poses a question as to whether Amazon pollution is just part of a deeper problem stemming from Ecuadorean government neglect and age-old landowner divides.
Some positive developments have come from the case, as human and environmental rights organizations have been able to blossom and improve conditions for many within Ecuador, building on the back of the high-profile court case.
However, with the case still unresolved, amid smear-campaign attempts and deceptive sampling claims, it would appear that the end is not yet in sight.