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Testimony ends in oil giant's Ecuador trial

2003-10-30

Sacramento Bee

by Tom Knudson

LAGO AGRIO, ECUADOR -- Testimony in the oil pollution trial of ChevronTexaco came to a close Wednesday with a spectacular pre-dawn lightning storm capping three days of sometimes explosive evidence.

The final stretch of this weeklong trial included testimony from a former minister of Ecuador's Ministry of Mines and Energy -- the government division responsible for oil drilling -- who caught the weary court audience's attention when he said a Texaco subsidiary knowingly used primitive waste disposal techniques in the 1970s and '80s.

Potentially just as surprising is an internal Texaco letter buried among the thousands of pages of documents still awaiting the judge's eyes. Presented by lawyers for the 30,000 rain forest residents suing ChevronTexaco, it indicates the oil company rejected the option of lining its earthen waste pits to protect the environment as too expensive.

"The current (unlined) pits are necessary for efficient and economical operation of our drilling ... operations. The total cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be $4,197,958. ... It is recommended that the pits neither be ... lined nor filled," a Texaco manager wrote in a 1980 letter.

"They decided not to spend the money," Cristobal Bonifaz, the lead U.S. attorney for the rain forest residents, charged in an interview outside the courtroom. "And the consequence of not spending money was sacrificing peoples' lives."

The documents on file with the court also detail a grim history of spills from the Trans Ecuadorean Pipeline, which carries oil over the Andes to world markets, including California.

From 1972 to 1989, breaks hemorrhaged 297,000 barrels of oil along the pipeline's 300-mile path. Seventy-three percent of the oil was spilled in what Texaco called the "East side, Amazon" region.

ChevronTexaco's Ecuadorean lawyers in Lago Agrio have repeatedly declined to speak to the news media. "I can talk about soccer, but that is all," one said in a hallway outside court.

In a statement released as the trial began last week, Ricardo Reis Viega, the company's vice president and general counsel for Latin America, flatly denied any wrongdoing. Company representatives maintain that using unlined pits was not only legal in Ecuador at the time, but was also standard practice in regions with clay soil, such as the Amazon.

"Plaintiffs have failed to present any credible, substantiated evidence to support their claims," Reis Viega said in the statement.

"Moreover, when Texaco Petroleum completed a remediation program in 1998, the government of Ecuador ... unconditionally released the company from all liabilities and obligations."

After a dramatic start nine days ago, the trial bogged down in an Ecuadorean style of justice so sluggish that on some days barely anything happened -- and on one day, nothing at all.

But as the deadline for the first phase of the case approached Wednesday, the pace picked up. In saunalike heat in a rundown courthouse, Judge Alberto Guerra Bastidas queried witnesses as lawyers -- who have almost no role in court here -- stood by, silent and statuelike.

They listened as the judge questioned Rene Vargas Pasos, the former energy minister who dealt with Texaco's Ecuador subsidiary in the mid-1970s.

As beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, Vargas Pasos, now 71, told the judge that Texaco designed and managed the oil fields that fouled the region with vast quantities of oily waste.

"Texaco knew ... its waste pits were not well-constructed, that they were" polluting the rain forest, Vargas Pasos said in a subsequent interview with The Bee at a nearby motel.

"I believe they were committing a crime against the region and the country," he added. "The consequences have demonstrated this: hundreds of people dead and sick. The water from the rivers is not good for drinking, not for bathing. It is a disaster."

Outside the courthouse Wednesday, there was no sympathy for the company. A banner hung from a balcony reading: Amazon -- Libre de ChevronToxico (Amazon -- Free of ChevronToxico). Protesters' T-shirts read, "Clean up what you left dirty."

Among the crowd was Laura Pena, 53, who lives near a former Texaco well outside the village of Patria Nueva, about 10 miles away.

"Our water is totally polluted," she said, her face grim and serious. "In the rivers, we can't catch fish. There is nothing."

Pena, whose front yard is scarred by an abandoned oil waste pit, said she came to town to see justice served. Not allowed in the courtroom, she stood for hours at the door.

"I want to see if Texaco is going to have to clean up or not," she said.

Inside the courtroom, it was impossible to tell which way Judge Guerra Bastidas -- who will decide the case without a jury -- was leaning. Reading from a list of questions prepared by lawyers, he peppered witnesses while a stenographer typed frantically with her two index fingers.

Wednesday's testimony wrapped up only the first part of the trial, focusing on testimony and evidence. Now the judge will journey into the rain forest to see polluted sites firsthand.

"I assume I will make an inspection of 100 to 150" areas, he said. A final ruling, he added, could take up to six months.

It's not just the arduous trips into the jungle that lie ahead, either. Guerra Bastidas faces all of the Texaco internal documents that plaintiffs' lawyers obtained through legal discovery in the United States, where the case first was filed.

They lie amid 5,000 pages of documents in the case that await the Ecuadorean judge.

The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or tknudson@sacbee.com.

Sacramento Bee

 

 
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