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The Long Court Battle Between Chevron and the Amazon Indians

A new scientific analysis submitted to Ecuadorian courts by technicians from ChevronTexaco-in a historic trial stemming from the world’s largest oil-related disaster, demonstrates the company resorted to “junk science” to hide its environmental crimes in the Amazon Rainforest, say technical experts for the victims.

Known as the “Rainforest Chernobyl” by remediation experts, the damage caused by ChevronTexaco´s deliberate dumping of roughly 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into more than 600 open-air pits has grown to span an area the size of Rhode Island and covers several major swamps and rivers that flow into Peru.


The area suffers from extremelly high rates of cancer because there is no treated water and 30,000 residents, including five indigenous tribes, are forced to drink from streams and wells contaminated by Texaco’s practices.


The Cofan, an indigenous nationality with a total population of only 800 people, are worried about their cultural survival.


The historic trial, which began in the jungle town of Lago Agrio in Ecuador’s rainforest in October of 2003, is the first time that forest peoples have forced a multinational oil company to submit to jurisdiction in the courts of its own territory.


To win, the victims must prove that ChevronTexaco left behind toxic chemicals that pose a danger to public health.


The contamination occurred because Texaco – now ChevronTexaco following the merger in 2001 – decided to dump toxic formation waters from its 330 wells rather than re-inject it underground, as it did at the time in the United States and other countries.


ChevronTexaco´s main defense is its claim that it cleaned up the sites, but that assertion is being sharply contested in the trial. Both parties have asked the court to inspect dozens of contaminated sites.


Judge Efrain Novillo will conduct inspections at 122 of the contaminated sites before making a final ruling. Two inspections are scheduled for this week.


The technical report of the first inspections submitted by scientific experts on behalf of the victims showed high levels of cancer-causing toxins, such as chromium and lead at ChevronTexaco´s former sites. The company’s technical inspection report however gives the company a clean bill.


“ChevronTexaco’s board of directors should look deeper into the cover up operation going on in Ecuador and blow the whistle on the company’s team,” said Atossa Soltani, Executive Director of Amazon Watch.


“This is without doubt one of the worst environmental disasters in the world today, and it makes the Exxon Valdez look like a backyard spill in comparison,” said David Russell, a leading oil remediation expert who has visited the zone and issued a preliminary report estimating clean-up at a minimum of $6 billion, not including the rivers and personal damages suffered by the victims.


“Thousands of people are suffering from exposure to petroleum and other toxins which were left behind by Texaco,” added Russell.


“For the indigenous people, I fear this is the environmental equivalent of genocide by neglect, and I find it extremely disturbing that Texaco has been able to hide its abuses so well up to this point.”


Texaco saved an estimated $5 billion over the course of its operations in Ecuador by foregoing the installation of re-injection technology. Texaco earned an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion in profits from its Ecuadorian operations.


Judicial Reports


Experts for the plaintiffs have cited the following holes in ChevronTexaco’s reports of the first four judicial inspections – available on the company’s website:


* The ChevronTexaco technicians avoided testing soil and water samples at the affected sites for the most dangerous chemicals that derive from petroleum drilling – chemicals such as chromium that Texaco in its own documents from the 1970s and the mid 1990’s acknowledged dumping into the open-air pits after drilling its wells.


After not testing for these chemicals, the company’s inspection report then draws “conclusions” that the chemicals do not exist at the inspected sites and that therefore there is no danger to public health.


Texaco used the same selective testing methods to claim to the Ecuadorian government that it had remediated some of its toxic pits in the mid-1990s.


* Independent laboratory results from Ecuador’s leading university, Universidad Catolica that were submitted to the court in December clearly demonstrate the existence of various toxic chemicals significantly over permissible Ecuadorian norms at sites Texaco claims to have remediated.


Yet, the ChevronTexaco technicians ignore Ecuadorian standards in their reports. Instead, they use “international” standards, which they invent, to show that contaminants present are acceptable. The ChevronTexaco technicians cite no sources for these “standards.”


This represents a clear attempt by the company to be judged by norms it creates rather than by the Ecuadorian standards required by Ecuadorian law.


* Another tactic used by ChevronTexaco’s technicians is to take soil and water samples at isolated locations where there is little or no contamination, even though generally there is extensive contamination in the area.


For example, the technicians took water samples from the top of a hill while the toxic waste pit is several meters below the surface. Samples were taken far from the natural gradient of the land to avoid toxic plumes that exist underground.


They also took samples a few inches below the surface of the dirt covering a closed pit, knowing that the toxins were at least one meter under the surface. (Journalists can request video documentation of ChevronTexaco’s selective sampling techniques used during judicial inspections).


* ChevronTexaco’s own laboratory reports, attached as an annex to the documents submitted to the court, report the presence of high levels of cancer-causing Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPHs), well over permissible Ecuadorian standards at the sites inspected (under court rules, ChevronTexaco had to submit all sampling results, even those that showed it left dangerous toxins in the ground).


In its written conclusions, the technicians are silent about the existence of TPHs at the inspected sites as demonstrated in their own lab reports. Perhaps they had hoped that the unfavorable lab results would not be noticed by the court.


* ChevronTexaco’s technicians also resort to the often-used industry defense that over time, nature will rehabilitate the damage if it is left alone.


But the heavy metals at the site do not disperse with rain. These substances are not organic products capable of decomposition, despite ChevronTexaco´s claims.



“What ChevronTexaco is trying to do is write the law by which it is judged so it can ensure its own exoneration,” said Luis Yanza, legal coordinator for the Amazon Defense Coalition, referring to the failure on the part of ChevronTexaco´s technicians to recognize Ecuadorian environmental norms in their reports.


ChevronTexaco’s lead technician and the author of the reports, John Conner, is a recognized expert in the United States on water-based contamination.


Mr. Conner has built much of his career working for large oil companies to help them down play the health impacts of their environmental practices.


“In the ChevronTexaco reports, Conner continually makes judgments based on his sensory perception not hard science,” said Olga Gomez, Petroleum Engineer working with the plaintiffs.


“For example, his claim that the contamination of heavy metals left by Texaco is biodegradable has no basis in scientific fact, and no peer-reviewed academic source is cited for this claim.”


“Like the scientists who were paid by tobacco companies to prove smoking was harmless, ChevronTexaco´s technicians used junk science to manufacture conclusions,” asserted Steven Donziger, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.


Donziger also states, “The latest deceptions in ChevronTexaco’s judicial reports suggest the possibility that Ricardo Reis Veiga, ChevronTexaco´s Miami-based lawyer who is overseeing the company’s multi-million dollar legal and public relations strategy in Ecuador, might not be acting in the best interests of shareholders.


Reis Veiga is a former Texaco employee who personally oversaw the company’s remediation in Ecuador, and he may have a vested interest in covering up the defects in that remediation that are now being contested in the trial.”


Distortions 


ChevronTexaco continues trying to cast blame on Ecuador’s state-owned oil company, PetroEcuador, for the contamination.


PetroEcuador inherited Texaco’s operation by contract in 1992 and continues using its defective infrastructure.


From a legal standpoint, the plaintiff’s assert that Texaco is responsible for all damages caused during its operations and to the present because the pollution and the defective technology system that Texaco created and installed continue to cause harm.


The ChevronTexaco reports also include thousands of pages of irrelevant documents that have nothing to do with the facts being litigated, and represent a clear effort to inundate the court with paper and delay the trial, which already has lasted 15 months.


Shareholders Response


For the second year in a row, ChevronTexaco shareholders have submitted a resolution calling on the company to report on “new initiatives by management to address the specific health and environmental concerns of communities affected by unremediated waste and other sources of oil-related contamination in the area where Texaco operated in Ecuador.”


The resolution was submitted on November 19, 2004 by shareholders holding more than $500 million in shares in the company led by Trillium Assets Management – www.trilliuminvest.com – and co-filed by The New York State Common Retirement Fund, Amnesty International, Sisters of Mercy of Burlingame and the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.


The shareholders have recently met with company representatives to express their concerns outlined in the resolution. The resolution is available at www.amazonwatch.org/view_news.php.id=868


The inspections are open to journalists and the public. At each inspection, dozens of local residents and indigenous leaders watch the unusual proceedings side by side with ChevronTexaco lawyers and executives from the United States.


Amazon Watch
www.amazonwatch.org

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