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Oil, Ecuador and its people

Today, a swath of the Ecuadorean Amazon remains contaminated beyond imagining. Neither side disputes the devastation, only who should pay for it. Chevron says it is the state oil company's responsibility; the plaintiffs say it is Chevron's.

August 28, 2009

In a small, spare courtroom in the Amazon region of Ecuador, Chevron Corp., California's largest company and one of the world's largest oil producers, will soon face a day of reckoning. After 16 years of litigation, a case the company inherited in a merger, Aguinda vs. Texaco Inc., is nearing an end. The legal battle that began in the United States in 1993 and resumed in Ecuador in 2003 has pitted the multinational against an unlikely adversary, a coalition of indigenous tribes and communities. A verdict is expected early next year. The plaintiffs are poised to prevail, and Chevron acknowledges that it is likely to lose.

The case is historic by several measures. Never before have indigenous peoples brought a multinational oil corporation to trial in their own country. Moreover, a victory would mark a turning point in the relations between native populations around the world and the foreign corporations that do business in their homelands. And the potential damages are staggering: A court-appointed expert has determined that they could run to $27 billion, almost 10 times that initially awarded to plaintiffs after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Today, a swath of the Ecuadorean Amazon the size of Rhode Island remains contaminated beyond imagining. At one site after another, oil hangs in the air, slides on the water's surface and saturates the land. Pipelines and waste pits left behind years ago still drip and ooze. Advocates for the plaintiffs have called the former Texaco concession area the "Amazon Chernobyl." Were it in the United States, it would easily qualify as a Superfund site. Neither side in the case disputes the devastation, only who should pay for it. Chevron says it is the state-owned oil company's responsibility; the plaintiffs say it is Chevron's.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages for environmental cleanup, reforestation and healthcare. (Under Ecuador's legal system, they cannot receive individual compensation.) In addition to reams of documents and hundreds of soil and water samples, the case has generated abundant ill will. Chevron maintains that it's the victim of a scheme to plunder its deep pockets and make it pay for pollution caused by Petroecuador, the state oil company, which took over after Texaco's operations ended. The plaintiffs contend that the pollution was caused by the faulty infrastructure Petroecuador inherited from Texaco; as with a faulty car, to use their analogy, it is the manufacturer, not the driver, who is to blame. Entire communities, they say, have been plagued with devastating illnesses as a result of oil waste in their drinking and bathing water, and their suffering has fallen on deaf corporate ears. Their resentment runs as deep as the oil Texaco once drilled.

Assessing the damage

Texaco Petroleum and Ecuadorean Gulf Oil Co. began exploring for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon in 1964, found it three years later and, from 1972 to 1992, produced 1.7 billion barrels of crude. Texaco held a 37.5% interest in the consortium, but it designed and constructed the wells, pipelines and waste pits, and it was the sole operator of the 1,700-square-mile concession area.

In 1992, after the government did not renew its contract, Texaco turned over its infrastructure to Petroecuador and left the country. One year later, five indigenous tribes and 80 communities filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in New York, then Texaco's headquarters. The suit alleged that Texaco discharged more than 18 billion gallons of waste water into rivers and streams, burned millions of cubic meters of natural gas without proper emissions controls and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil directly into the earth, polluting the region's only sources of water, sickening inhabitants and even contributing to the extinction of one small tribe, the Tetete.

In a report submitted last year, the court- appointed expert, geologist Richard Cabrera, estimated that 1,400 people in the region had died of cancer caused by toxic chemicals involved in oil extraction. That calculation accounts for $2.9 billion of the damages assessment. Chevron contends that Cabrera is not qualified to make such a determination and that neither science nor medicine supports his assertion; he has not presented the medical records of any victims. As for remediation, the company says Texaco already did that.

Chevron disputes the scientific methods used to determine its culpability, but the heart of its defense is its assertion that the case never should have been permitted to go forward. The company maintains that it is the victim of the retroactive application of environmental laws that did not apply when Texaco was operating the concession area, and that Texaco fulfilled its clean-up obligations.

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