February 22, 2011- Nick Engelfried
Oil giant Chevron may be losing one of the most important environmental legal battles in oil industry history, as courts in both Ecuador and the United States hand down decisions unfavorable to the company. On Valentine’s Day a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador found Chevron guilty of illegally polluting vast areas of rainforest in the Ecuadorean Amazon and poisoning the drinking water of nearby communities. The court ordered Chevron to pay more than $8 billion in damages. Two days later a US District Court judge in San Francisco ordered a Chevron contractor on the run from a subpoena to come forward for questioning about activities with the company.
Both these legal developments are new installments in a drawn-out court story that has unfolded over the last eighteen years, since villagers in Ecuador’s Amazon first filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco Corporation for illegal polluting. Texaco, a company later acquired by Chevron, drilled for oil in Ecuador for sixteen years between 1964 and 1990, discharging 18.5 billion gallons of waste into the local water supply. Community members who filed the lawsuit claim Texaco knowingly cut safety corners and ignored environmental regulations so as to dispose of the waste as quickly as possible, at great cost to nearby villages.
In areas where Texaco dumped its waste, chemical compounds like benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons seeped into drinking water and exposed villagers to the risks of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a US non-profit who’s Change Chevron Campaign presses Chevron to improve its environmental practices, says 1,400 people have already died of cancer attributable to pollution from Texaco’s oil operations. However Chevron (which became legally responsible for Texaco’s activities after buying up the company in 2001) claims it isn’t to blame for pollution in the region.
The Chevron-Texaco case has spent nearly two decades winding its way through Ecuadorean, US, and international courts. Last week Ecuador’s Lago Agrio court ruled against Chevron, but the argument is far from over. Chevron says it will appeal the ruling, and that the judge’s decision was fraudulent. Meanwhile groups like the Rainforest Action Network, which want to see Chevron pay up, are continuing to put pressure on the company. After the Lago Agrio ruling, RAN urged supporters to contact Chevron CEO John Watson and ask him to take responsibility for his company’s activity in Ecuador.
Crucial evidence that could affect a final decision on the Chevron case may still be missing. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the case the Ecuadorean government attempted to subpoena Diego Borja, a former Chevron contractor who may have helped falsify evidence about Chevron’s environmental practices. Last year Borja was caught on record describing how he helped manufacture evidence suggesting Chevron had done more to clean up its pollution in Ecuador than was actually the case. According to the statements, Borja was paid by Chevron to pose as a third-party expert when presiding over environmental analyses of the impacts of Chevron’s activity.
Before he could be questioned in Ecuador’s courts, Borja fled the country for California—where Chevron paid for him to live in San Ramon. Earlier this year Borja and his wife Sarah Portilla left California, right after a US court agreed to serve them subpoenas. Neighbors said Borja and Portilla had moved to Texas, but their exact whereabouts is unknown at this point. On Wednesday US District Court Judge Edward Chin reiterated that Borja must appear in court for questioning.
The courtroom fight between one of the world’s biggest oil companies and rural villagers in Ecuador could end up taking several more years to resolve, as both sides seem intent on pressing through to the end. However for now environmental justice advocates are celebrating the milestone of having Chevron convicted in Ecuador. Chevron may still find a way to avoid paying up in the end, but one thing is almost certain. When Texaco first decided to dump toxic drilling waste in the Ecuadorean Amazon, no one in the oil industry expected the move to trigger the long legal and public relations battle Chevron now finds itself caught up in.
Photo credit: Anthony Patterson