By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
17 November 2008
Reporting from Coca, Ecuador -- Abel Garrido has just struck oil and he's not happy about it.
Using a tree branch, the weathered farmer probed the edge of a pond that his cattle use for drinking water and soon turned up the smelly black sludge that he says has killed much of his livestock and sickened his family.
"I've lost 30 cows," Garrido said. "I cut them open and their insides are black."
Paying the medical bills to treat his three children for skin cancer has cost him his meager savings.
"Here's the cause," Garrido said, contemplating the dark slime gleaming on the end of the branch.
The contamination at Garrido's farm and hundreds of others in a Rhode Island-sized area here in the Ecuadorean Amazon is the basis of a controversial, long-running civil lawsuit in which a verdict is expected early next year.
On one side are 30,000 mostly peasant farmers like Garrido who say they are living a health and ecological nightmare caused by careless oil drilling and production methods that contaminated their drinking water and spoiled their lush jungle environment.
On the other side is defendant Chevron, the San Ramon, Calif.-based parent company which in 2001 acquired Texaco, which produced oil here from 1972 to 1990, and which the lawsuit claims polluted a vast swath of the Amazon. Chevron says Texaco cleaned up its share of the spills with three years of remediation work and that the Ecuadorean government absolved it of all future responsibility in 1998.
The oil giant blames Petroecuador for any ongoing spills and for not following through on its share of the cleanup. Texaco was 37.5% partner in the oil field venture, and Petroecuador owned the rest.
The Ecuadorean plaintiffs claim that Chevron never adequately cleaned up hundreds of oil catch basins and spills of drilling muds that continue to contaminate the groundwater. They claim the settlement with the government doesn't preclude individuals successfully suing the oil giant.
If Garrido and other residents win, the case could set a worldwide precedent: Foreign plaintiffs have never collected for alleged offshore environmental damage caused by a U.S. company, said Ohio State University environmental economist Douglas Southgate.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) toured the area and, shocked by the pollution he saw, wrote a letter he said he plans to send today to President-elect Barack Obama asking that the U.S. help Ecuador with cleaning up and direct "relevant departments and agencies . . . to design a plan to help fix this awful situation."
In an interview here, McGovern said that "legal wrangling aside, what I saw demands immediate attention. This is a humanitarian and environmental crisis."
Transferred from a New York court in 2003, the case may be decided by a superior court judge in Lago Agrio, near Coca, within a few months, attorneys say. The verdict may not be to Chevron's liking. In a report filed in March, a court-appointed investigator estimated that Chevron was liable for up to $8 billion in health and cleanup costs.
"Texaco used the pristine Amazon rain forest as a garbage can," said Steven Donziger, a New York-based environmental attorney who represents the Ecuadoreans.
Chevron fired back, challenging the scientific methods of the analysis, including the connection it made between oil spills and cancer cases. Economist Southgate, who is a Chevron consultant, said the report also didn't factor in Petroecuador's share of responsibility for the pollution, or evidence that it has continued to contaminate since it took over all ownership and operation responsibilities from Texaco in 1992.
In April, Chevron took a public relations blow when local attorney Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community organizer Luis Yanza won the international Goldman Environmental Prize for leading the legal battle against Chevron, a prize the oil company bitterly criticized.
In September, the Ecuadorean government indicted two of Chevron's Ecuadorean lawyers, accusing them of falsifying scientific evidence used to show that Texaco's remediation measures in the 1990s were effective. Chevron denied the charges.
Chevron attorneys have petitioned U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab to cancel the trade breaks Ecuador receives from the United States for its role in helping fight drug trafficking, claiming that President Rafael Correa had prejudiced the oil contamination case in public statements, limiting Chevron's chances of getting a fair trial.
Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said that if the company lost in Ecuador, it would appeal the verdict, possibly before a World Bank tribunal or at The Hague.
Chevron has left the door open for a negotiated settlement, but previous overtures to the Ecuadoreans have been rebuffed, he said.
Garrido, who has owned the 80-acre farm since 1981, said he didn't know or care who is to blame; he only wants to be given money to buy a new farm somewhere else, where he can escape the sight, smell and health effects of the oil.
"When I bought the farm in 1981, the oil was here, but they told us it was good for us, that it had a lot of vitamins," Garrido said. "That was just to fool us."