Chevron Would Face $5 Billion Tab For
Amazon Cleanup, Expert Says--Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
by Marc Lifsher
LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador -- Cleaning up toxic
wastes in the Ecuadorean Amazon region could cost ChevronTexaco
Corp. more than $5 billion and take as long as 10 years, according
to a U.S. expert advising the plaintiffs in a lawsuit being tried
in this ramshackle, frontier oil town.
The Ecuadorean media and environmentalists tout the case, which
pits 30,000 local Indians and subsistence farmers against a giant
oil company, as the antiglobalization "trial of the
century."The suit originally was filed in U.S. District Court
in New York before a judge transferred jurisdiction to Ecuador in
August 2002. The complaint accuses a subsidiary of Texaco, which
merged in 2002 with Chevron, San Ramon, Calif., of polluting
ground water, rivers and swamps in the Ecuadorean Amazon region.
The plaintiffs allege that from 1971 to 1992, Texaco Petroleum
Inc. recklessly dumped oil waste in more than 600 ponds over a
2,000-square-mile area of rain forest and wetlands. The complaint
requests that the company be ordered to pay for a thorough
ChevronTexaco denies responsibility for any possible environmental
damage, citing a prior cleanup effort and a release from liability
it received from Ecuador's government.
The waste, a chemical stew of heavy metals such as arsenic and
carcinogens such as benzene, increased levels of cancer, infant
mortality, spontaneous abortions, headaches, stomach ailments and
skin diseases, the suit alleges. The effects of pollution also
harmed crops and livestock, plaintiffs claim.
"To put this in perspective, you're looking at something,
sizewise, larger than the Chernobyl disaster," said Dave
Russell, an Atlanta-based toxics specialist serving as an expert
consultant to the plaintiffs. "The damage is to the entire
ecosystem." According to Mr. Russell, who provided the $5
billion cleanup estimate, the only way to effectively curtail
pollution would be to dig up, transport and incinerate millions of
tons of contaminated soil. Such a project would dwarf any
decontamination effort ever undertaken, he said.
ChevronTexaco spokesman Chris Gidez dismisses the plaintiffs'
assertions regarding damages and cleanup costs, saying they are
based on "pseudoscience" and are "wild and
unsubstantiated." He said the company's attorneys have asked
the Ecuadorean judge to dismiss the case because plaintiffs have
presented "no credible scientific evidence" that the oil
company caused environmental damage or violated Ecuadorean
pollution laws. He said the Ecuadorean government "released
Texaco from further liabilities and obligations" upon the
completion of a $40 million decontamination program in 1998.
Moreover, ChevronTexaco noted that the government oil company,
Petroecuador, held a majority interest in Texaco's local
operations during a first production phase and assumed full
control in 1990.
In the trial's first phase, which lasted two weeks and ended
yesterday, ChevronTexaco didn't present any witnesses. Lawyers
representing the company in court said they hadn't been authorized
to comment on the case.
Questioning of witnesses, including experts, in an Ecuadorean
trial is done by the judge working from questions proposed by the
parties' lawyers; there are no cross-examinations. Next week, the
judge will begin conducting a personal investigation in the field
before bringing the parties back for potential further
questioning. His decision, which could be appealed to the
Ecuadorean Supreme Court, is expected in six to eight months.
Texaco's contract with Petroecuador expired in 1992. Residents of
the eastern Ecuadorean Amazon sued the company in U.S. federal
court in New York in 1993. A federal judge shifted the case to
Ecuador with the stipulation that any eventual ruling could be
enforced by the U.S. court.
ChevronTexaco's effort to shift any remaining responsibility to
the Ecuadorean government doesn't reflect legal and technical
realities at the time Texaco pioneered Amazon oil exploration in
the early 1970s, said Cristobal Bonifaz, thelead attorney in the
U.S. for the plaintiffs. As the "operating partner,"
Texaco had a legal obligation to employ "best practices in
respect to the environment," he said.
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