Chevron’s Mess in the Amazon

By Dick Clapp

A critically important verdict with far-reaching implications is soon to be rendered in an Ecuadorian Court.  The court case involves the rights of 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians to compensation from the Chevron oil company for destruction of their land and for devastating ecological and public health consequences throughout the Amazon region in Eastern Ecuador.  The history of the lawsuit began in 1964 when Texaco, now owned by Chevron, began extracting oil using methods that are particularly damaging to the environment and continued this practice for decades.  The oil extraction involved drilling and raising “production water” along with oil, which was literally drained into streams and lagoons throughout an area the size of Rhode Island.  This spread hydrocarbon and metal contamination so widely that one technical observer for the plaintiffs said, “If this were the U.S., the area would be considered unfit for human habitation and would be fenced off until it could be remediated.”

I visited some of the contaminated areas in November, as part of a Congressional delegation led by Jim McGovern (D-MA).  I was invited by attorneys for the plaintiffs to see the extent of the contamination and review the health information that has been collected so far. Although I had read studies on the health of residents living near oil fields in Ecuador’s Amazon basin, I still wasn’t prepared for the devastation we witnessed.

We toured working and abandoned oil well sites, waste lagoons and the homes of Ecuadorians who lived literally next door to some of these sites.  We met people who had skin rashes on their arms and legs, had been diagnosed with cancer, or had children with birth defects all of whom were exposed to the oil extraction wastes. 

Some of the waste sites were being slowly remediated by employees of the Ecuadorian state oil company, to which Chevron asserts it has transferred responsibility for the clean-up.  One of the waste lagoons that was tested by Chevron and by plaintiffs’ experts as background for the Court.  It was called “cleaned up” by Chevron and their testing reported the total petroleum hydrocarbon levels as “non-detect.” It was grossly polluted, and Congressman McGovern questioned how Chevron could say it was clean.  The answer seems to be that they took samples at the periphery of the site, not where the waste was.  He committed himself to trying to get U.S. agencies to “get a plan to help fix this awful situation … This is a humanitarian and environmental crisis.”

The struggle to bring this ecological and human health devastation to international attention has been led by two courageous Ecuadorians, Pablo Fajardo and Luiz Yanza. These two participated in the tour we took in November and accompanied us to an indigenous community where we heard further stories about cultural destruction wrought by U.S. oil company activities. They are both from the Ecuadorian Amazon region and were jointly awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in April, 2008 in recognition of their work. (You can watch a video about them at the Goldman Prize website.) Pablo is a lawyer who has become the public representative of the 30,000 plaintiffs, at great personal risk to himself and his family.  Luiz is a co-founder of the Amazon Defense Front and together with teams of U.S.-based lawyers they have waged a campaign to get compensation for cleaning up the oil waste, remediation of water bodies in the region and monitoring the health of the indigenous people.  Chevron has said it is no longer responsible for any of these things, and that their prior clean-up work was sufficient.

The long-term consequences of the Court decision, expected in early 2009, are a potential $27 billion dollar remediation effort to reverse the ecological damage in the Amazon region, and strengthening of Ecuadorian environmental protection laws.  The results of the campaign and legal verdict in Ecuador also have implications for damaging oil extraction practices in other countries, and ultimately on the search for alternative ways of producing energy that do not destroy the planet.  We need to watch for the outcome of this court case and make sure the lessons are not lost on present policy-makers and architects of future energy options.

Dick Clapp is Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, and Adjunct Professor at U. of Mass. – Lowell in the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.  He is a former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and served as Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980-1989.  He has worked in two environmental health consulting groups in addition to his teaching and research activities, and he traveled to Ecuador under the auspices of Stratus Consulting Co., from Boulder, CO.

Comments

  1. #1 Justin H
    March 30, 2009

    Hello,

    This is Justin from Chevron. I’d like to thank you for taking time to address this important issue. I’d also like to take a moment to provide those that are interested with additional information on this case.

    For more than 13 years, attorneys and activists have pursued lawsuits against Texaco and Chevron claiming that a subsidiary, Texaco Petroleum Company (Texpet), is responsible for health and environmental impacts from oil operations in Ecuador over more than 16 years ago. In the process they have waged an ongoing misinformation campaign in which facts are twisted and scientific data ignored. The motivation behind this campaign is clear: without any factual or legal merit to back their claims, plaintiffs’ attorneys and the activist groups who support them are attempting to circumvent the judicial process and force a settlement by attacking Chevron’s reputation and integrity.

    At the same time, plaintiffs’ attorneys are doing a grave disservice to their clients by refusing to pursue any claims against the proper party, state-owned oil company Petroecuador. As the exclusive owner and operator of the oil fields for over 15 years, Petroecuador has not only failed to honor its legal obligations to remediate oil field sites, but its disastrous record of pollution and environmental mismanagement over these many years is a fact that plaintiffs’ attorneys choose to ignore.

    In fact, advocates for the lawsuit against Chevron have long relied on the images and performance of Petroecuador to advance their case. Recently, Ecuador’s state newspaper, El Telegrafo, reported that Petroecuador has sustained more than 1,400 oil spills since 2000:

    http://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/sociedad/ecologia/noticia/archive/sociedad/ecologia/2009/02/09/Gasto-por-remediaci_F300_n-ambiental-baj_F300_-en-2008.aspx

    Other reports from Ecuador suggest that Petroecuador has spilled more than 4 million gallons of oil since it assumed operations in 1990.

    For more information on the claims made in this post including those pertaining to the consortium agreement between Texaco and Petroecuador, produced water, health of residents and site remediation please visit the following website:

    http://www.texaco.com/sitelets/ecuador/en/PlaintiffsMyths.aspx#lies

    and take a moment to watch this video:

    http://www.chevron.com/media/VideoPlayer.aspx?VideoId=ChevronEcuador&TB_iframe=true&width=400&height=410

    -Justin

  2. #2 Andy T.
    April 9, 2009

    I first read about this story in the popular outdoor life magazine Outside. It’s an interesting article, told more from the perspective of the US lawyer that is helping out and it’s a little dated now. Still, I figured I would post the link.

    http://outside.away.com/outside/culture/200703/ecuador-oil-1.html

  3. #3 Dick Clapp
    May 5, 2009

    There was an interesting segment of “60 Minutes” on Sunday (May 3) on the Chevron/Texaco oil mess and the lawsuit. You can go to the CBS website and search for “Chevron + Crude.” A Chevron spokeswoman on the segment pointed out that people are exposed to petrochemicals all the time and don’t suffer health effects; she said, for example, there were petrochemicals in the make-up on her face and that was no problem. Someone should let her in on the “Safe Cosmetics” website – she might modify her position (but probably not).
    There were stories in the Wall Street Journal and on NPR last month, in anticipation of the pending verdict. Chevron has hired an expert named Michael Kelsh, who works at a product defense firm called Exponent, to refute the health studies done to date. They also maintain that the real polluter is the state-owned company, Petroecuador. The first comment on this post is essentially Chevron’s position in the lawsuit. We’ll see what the Court has to say about it pretty soon.