By César Chelala and Alejandro M. Garro, International Herald Tribune
12 January 2004
NEW YORK. Drilling for oil without adequate safeguards is one of the most destructive processes to man and the environment. This fact has been particularly apparent in the Ecuadorean area of the Amazon basin, where Texaco - which later merged with Chevron - drilled for oil from 1964 through 1992. ChevronTexaco is now facing a billion-dollar legal battle for polluting significant portions of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The outcome of this legal battle will set the standards under which powerful multinational companies will be held accountable for harming the health of the population in their working areas, and for polluting the environment in many developing countries.
Oil exploration involves a complex set of activities, starting with the construction of roads into remote areas, destroying the natural habitat. Waste substances from oil drilling are stored in pits. Unless these pits are properly lined, toxic substances leak into the water supply, polluting rivers and lakes, killing fish, and threatening the survival of people and livestock.
Such toxic dumping has affected a local indigenous community of 30,000 people in Ecuador, and has led to a loss of one million hectares, or 2.5 million acres, of rain forest. The "Yana Curi" report (from the local indigenous expression for oil) was one of the first studies on the effects of oil pollution on people's health in the northeast region of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The study was conducted in the village of San Carlos, where more than 30 wells were built by Texaco; it was prepared by two medical doctors in collaboration with the Department of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene at the University of London.
According to the study, exposure to toxic substances resulted from absorption through the skin, ingestion of food and water and inhalation of oil and its gases. The study estimates that the water used by local residents for drinking, bathing and washing clothes contains nearly 150 times the amount of substances such as hydrocarbons that is considered safe.
Some cancer rates in San Carlos exceeded the standard rates by up to 30 times. Risk of melanoma and cancer of the stomach, liver and bile duct is 2.3 times higher for those living in San Carlos than elsewhere in the Amazon region. The rates of spontaneous abortion in the affected population were 2.5 times higher than in communities in the area not exposed to contamination. Texaco said these results were only preliminary and not worth analyzing.
According to Cristóbal Bonifaz, one of the plaintiffs' representatives, ChevronTexaco used inadequate extraction techniques. As a consequence, waste products were spilled into creeks and rivers rather than pumped back into the ground, as it is common practice now and it was then. Because of pipe breaks, Bonifaz said, more raw crude was pumped into the ground of the Ecuadorean Amazon than the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.
In November 1993, a lawsuit on behalf of residents of the rain forest area known as Oriente was initiated in a federal court in New York, close to Texaco's international headquarters in Westchester County. The suit charges that Texaco dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into hundreds of unlined open pits and from there into estuaries and rivers, thus exposing residents to disease-causing pollutants. The plaintiffs seek a thorough cleanup of the area, an assessment of the long-term health effects of the contamination and damage compensation that may exceed $1 billion.
Despite being sued on its own home turf, ChevronTexaco fought fiercely to have the case dismissed. After more than 10 years of litigation on this jurisdictional issue alone, a federal appeals court finally ruled that "reasons of convenience" pointed to the jurisdiction of a rural Ecuadorean court.
It remains to be seen whether a case of this magnitude may be tried fairly and expeditiously by a poorly equipped judicial machinery in Ecuador. If the Ecuadorean court were to uphold rigorous standards for the protection of health and the environment, U.S.-$ based multinationals would conduct business abroad under more strict rules and regulations. A fair and relatively prompt outcome to this suit would be not only a victory for the environment, but also for the thousands of indigenous peoples in developing countries whose survival and quality of life continues to be affected by oil drilling without adequate safeguards.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant. Alejandro M. Garro is a professor of law at Columbia University, New York.
Copyright 2004, International Herald Tribune