Ecuadorans put Chevron on trial
Company accused in class-action lawsuit of despoiling Amazon
region with crude
San Francisco Chronicle
by Tyche Hendricks
A class-action lawsuit against oil giant
ChevronTexaco opened today in a small, cinderblock courthouse in a
frontier oil town in the Ecuadorian rainforest, charging the
company with despoiling the environment with millions of gallons
of spilled crude oil during the 1970s and '80s.
International activists who have been aiding the plaintiffs -
30,000 Amazonian peasants and Indians -- say the case could be a
milestone in ensuring U.S.-based companies conduct their foreign
"It's historic," said Shannon Wright, associate director
of Amazon Watch, a San Francisco nonprofit. "What happens in
this one-room courthouse could be a turning point for indigenous
people trying to protect their land and for multinational
companies looking to avoid responsibility overseas."
ChevronTexaco's lawyers, however, say there is no case and will
ask the judge today to dismiss the suit.
The company contends that its subsidiary, Texaco Petroleum Corp.,
undertook a $40 million cleanup in 1998 and is no longer legally
responsible for the environmental conditions in Ecuador.
"We don't feel the plaintiffs have ever provided any
substantiated evidence to support their claims," said Maripat
Sexton, a spokeswoman for ChevronTexaco in Houston. "In 1998,
the Ecuadoran government, PetroEcuador and five municipalities
released the company from all liabilities and obligations related
to the oil operations.'' PetroEcuador is the national oil company.
But Humberto Piaguaje, 39, a member of the Secoya nation and a
village schoolteacher who lives beside the Aguarico River, has
experienced firsthand the toxic consequences of oil exploration.
For 30 years, he said, residents of the jungle region have been
dying of cancer, hepatitis and skin infections. People lack clean
water for drinking and bathing. And widespread deforestation has
encroached on traditional fishing and hunting grounds.
He feels ChevronTexaco does bear responsibility for the mess,
along with the national oil company, which continues drilling in
the Amazon. The trial, he said, is his country's chance to prove
that the rule of law will protect ordinary citizens.
"I'm a little nervous, but I also have hope,'' Piaguaje said
in San Francisco on Monday. "This is the moment when Ecuador
needs to demonstrate that there is justice. But I know the company
is very powerful. If it can influence the judge, we'll be worse
off than we were.''
Piaguaje was visiting the Bay Area to raise awareness about the
case, particularly in the San Ramon Valley, where ChevronTexaco
headquarters is located, and where residents plan a protest today.
He returned to Ecuador Monday night to attend the trial in the
Amazon town of Lago Agrio, where his father is scheduled to
He and the other plaintiffs have waited more than a decade for
their day in court. They are seeking a thorough cleanup, detailed
monitoring of the long- term health effects of the contamination
and damages that could total more than $1 billion. The trial is
expected to last six days, and the judge must return a verdict
within three months.
The original suit alleges that Texaco dumped 18 million gallons of
toxic waste into hundreds of unlined open pits, estuaries and
rivers between 1964 and 1992, exposing residents to cancer-causing
pollutants. Environmental activists say crude oil-laden wastewater
should have been reinjected deep underground, as has long been
standard practice in the industry.
But ChevronTexaco spokeswoman Sexton said the use of waste pits
was legal and common.
"Especially at the time, pits were an acceptable method of
dealing with produced water," she said. "It's still
allowable in many countries, including in parts of the United
The plaintiffs had originally hoped the case would be tried in the
United States, but a federal appeals court in New York ruled last
year that the matter should be decided in Ecuador. But in a
landmark decision, the court also warned that any judgment against
the oil company by the Ecuadoran court would be enforced in the
"A precedent has already been set in a U.S. court saying we
will enforce a judgment made in another country against a U.S.
company," said Wright. "If the judgment is favorable to
the plaintiffs, then it takes it to a whole new level."
E-mail Tyche Hendricks at email@example.com.
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