Wednesday, January 20, 2010

the people vs. texaco/chevron I

This is the first in a series of posts on the legacy of the petroleum industry in the Oriente of Ecuador.

In the spring of 1994 I was a graduating senior at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and wrote an honors thesis ham-handedly entitled "Crude Destruction: Multinational Petroleum Corporations and the Desolation of Ecology and Indigenous People of Ecuador's Oriente." You can guess what it was about. My Spanish and research skills were limited at the time, but this experience did put me on the trail that eventually led to a PhD in Latin American History. I was excited at the time I was research to come across a news item detailing a lawsuit that a group of Ecuadoreans had filed in US District Court against Texaco, Inc. The lawsuit was being managed in the US by attorneys from the Kohn, Nast & Graf firm of Philadelphia, PA.

The case, at that point, was far from court, and had only just been filed. So, I decided to contact the firm as ask for a copy of the complaint (long before the days of services like this one to track cases online). So, when I called I told the reception that I was working on a thesis (note-- did not say senior honors thesis) on oil contamination and its effects on the Oriente, and she patched me through to Joseph C. Kohn, the partner handling the case, and Kohn spoke to me on the phone for a good 45 minutes before agreeing to mail the filing to me that afternoon. The summary of claims included the following:
  1. In 1964, Texaco acquired rights to explore and drill for oil in the Oriente. From approximately 1972 through 1992, Texaco drilled more than 400 oil wells in the region and extracted approximately 220,000 barrels of oil per day.
  2. ...Texaco did not use reasonable industry standards of oil extraction in the Oriente, or comply with accepted American local or international standards of environmental safety and protection. Rather, purely for its own economic gain, Texaco deliberately ignored reasonable and safe practices and treated the pristine Amazon rain forests of the Oriente and its people as a toxic waste dump.
  3. Texaco failed to pump unprocessable crude oil and toxic residues back into the wells as is the reasonable and prudent industry practice. Instead, Texaco disposed of these toxic substances by dumping them in open pits, into the streams, rivers and wetlands, burning them in open pits without any temperature or air pollution controls, and spreading oil on the roads. Texaco designed and constructed oil pipelines without adequate safety features resulting in spills of millions of gallons of crude oil.
  4. Texaco's practices of disposing of untreated crude and waste by-products into the environment has contaminated the drinking water, rivers, streams, ground water and air with dangerously high levels of such known toxins as benzene, toluene, xylene, mercury, lead and hydrocarbons, among others. Texaco's acts and omissions have resulted in the discharge of oil into the plaintiff's environment at a rate in excess of 3,000 gallons per day for 20 years. Many times more oil has been spilled in the Oriente than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
  5. Plaintiffs and the class they seek to represent have suffered sever personal injuries and are at an incresaed risk of suffering other diseases, including cancers. Their sources of potable water have been contaminated, their properties polluted, their livestock killed or made ill, and their very existence as a people jeopardized.
  6. Plaintiffs and the class have no means to redress these wrongs other than through this action in this Honorable Court. Texaco's activities in Ecuador were at all relevant times designed, controlled and directed by defendant Texaco Inc. through its operations in the United States. Texaco no longer does business in Ecuador.
The list of ailments suffered by members of the class is harrowing-- ranging from constant respiratory infections, body growths, chemical poisonings, fish kills, dietary changes, skin rashes from bathing in contaminated water, evidence that even the rain water was contaminated with Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, the destruction of traditional lifeways, spontaneous abortions by both people and livestock, fevers, corporal pains, migraine headaches, etc. The defendants were largely Quichua and Secoya Indians, but also included some "colonists" who settled in the Oriente as the petroleum industry cut roads into the forest, and as land reforms pursued by successive military governments in the 1960s and 1970s sought to move landless peasants from the highlands into the Amazon basin.

Texaco replied to the suit by claiming that US courts had no jurisdiction over the case, given that the alleged acts and effects were totally restricted to Ecuador. They claimed that Ecuador's own courts would be the appropriate venue, and that the plaintiffs were not pursuing them there because, in fact, not of the alleged actions were illegal in Ecuador. They also, of course, denied they had contaminated the Oriente and shifted blame to any of a number of other petroleum companies operating in the region after Texaco's departure. The response was disingenuous at best.

The case languished in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, until it was finally dismissed in May 2001 citing jurisdictional issues. The plaintiffs appealed, and a little more than a year later the appellate court upheld the judge's dismissal. In the meantime, Chevron had acquired Texaco and took on the burden of Texaco's litigation- a burden that was extended back to Ecuador in 2003 when a new class action suit was filed in the Ecuadorean courts intended to hold Chevron accountable for the human and environmental devastation.

This case is now close ruling in Ecuador, and Chevron is engaging in every tactic it can to put off the findings. Two weeks ago, the company filed to have the case moved to international binding arbitration, a maneuver the plaintiffs and Ecuadorean government oppose. More on that, and on the back story next time.