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News; Foreign Desk; National
The World Ecuadorean Court to
Handle Villagers vs. ChevronTexaco
Carla D'Nan Bass and T. Christian Miller
Special to the Times
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times
Ecuador -- Lawyers
representing some 30,000 impoverished Ecuadoreans are expected to
Corp. today, accusing the second-largest U.S. oil company of
contaminating the rainforest and sickening local residents.
suit alleges that a ChevronTexaco
unit discharged billions of gallons of contaminated water, causing
widespread pollution and illness. The company rejects the charges.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals put aside a similar suit,
saying the issue should be tried in Ecuador.
said that a victory for the plaintiffs would shake multinationals
who have often sought to have suits tried abroad in order to take
advantage of countries with weak legal systems.
stakes are very high," said Alejandro M. Garro, a professor
of Latin American law at Columbia University. "We have a
global economy with international businesses, but we don't have a
global justice system."
is one of the oldest lawsuits that have been filed in U.S. courts
seeking to hold multinational corporations responsible for
environmental damage by their operations in foreign countries.
suit will be filed under a new Superfund-style law in Ecuador
mandating that companies pay for pollution cleanup costs. However,
legal experts were unsure whether the country's already
overwhelmed court system could handle a lawsuit involving more
than 30,000 victims and complicated scientific and environmental
claims in the suit stem from oil pumping in a remote region of
around the town of Lago Agrio.
suit alleges that a subsidiary of ChevronTexaco's
corporate predecessor, Texaco, dumped approximately 18.5 billion
gallons of water polluted by oil pumping into unlined pits and
rivers between 1971 and 1992. The suit also claims that over the
decades, the company was responsible for 50% more spilled oil than
resulted from the Exxon Valdez disaster.
of San Ramon, on Tuesday dismissed the lawsuit's claims. Chris
Gidez, a ChevronTexaco
spokesman, said the company had already paid $40 million to clean
up its operations after the company's concession ended more than a
no credible, substantiated effort that link [the company's]
practices with any of the alleged environmental or health claims
they make," he said.
Alberto Wray, who is heading the Ecuadorean legal team, announced
at a news conference Tuesday that he plans to travel to Lago Agrio
today to file the lawsuit.
York lawyers in coats and ties, Amazonian Indians in feathered
headdresses and Highland Indians in ponchos gathered at 10 a.m. in
the headquarters of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities
of Ecuador to drum
up coverage for the case, which has taken a tortured path through
the legal system since it was originally filed in New York in
front of the rainbow-colored indigenous flag and behind giant
photos of oil-filled pits labeled with the message "Don't
Mess With Ecuador,"
residents of the Amazon region explained how they believe
pollution caused by the company's petroleum operations has hurt
of injecting the wastewater back into the ground, as was common
practice in the U.S., the company disposed of it in aboveground
ponds, the plaintiffs contend. Local residents say that the
practice has polluted their rivers, drinking water and other
sources of food, causing skin rashes, respiratory problems and
there has been no comprehensive study of the effects, one small
study in 1999 sponsored by the London School of Hygiene and
Tropical Medicine looked at a village in the heart of the oil
region. Investigators found that the residents' chances of
developing cancer were 130% greater than for residents in the
women of the community have died from cancer. The children are
born too small and die. We aren't going to be able to live because
everything is contaminated," said Laura Mendua, a member of
the Cofan tribe, in her native language while another tribe member
translated into Spanish.
hired by ChevronTexaco
have dismissed the health claims, and the plaintiff's lawyers
admit that the studies are too small to draw large-scale
conclusions. As to the environmental damages, Gidez said the
company's disposal methods were not unusual for the era, and that
the company respected environmental laws.
said that the lawsuit also blames ChevronTexaco
for damages that may have been caused by other activities.
staff writer Miller reported from Bogota, Colombia, and special
correspondent Bass from Quito.