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U.S. oil firm leaves toxic legacy in Ecuador

by Cesar Chelala and Alejandro M. Garro

NEW YORK — Drilling for oil without adequate safeguards is one of the most destructive industrial activities both for people and for the environment. This danger has been particularly stark in the case of oil exploration and exploitation in the forested areas of the Amazon basin.

From 1964 to 1992, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron and now is called ChevronTexaco) carried out these activities in the Ecuador area of the Amazon. Accused of polluting significant portions of the Amazon region, ChevronTexaco is now facing a multibillion-dollar law suit. The outcome of this battle may demonstrate how far U.S.-based multinational companies can be held accountable for their deeds.

Drilling for oil produces several substances and waste products, which are stored in special pits. If these pits are not properly lined, toxic materials can contaminate surrounding areas. Once toxic waste leaks into water basins, rivers and lakes, it kills fish and makes people and livestock ill, at times threatening their very survival.

Oil activities conducted by ChevronTexaco in the northeast Amazon region in Ecuador have caused significant environmental damage and serious health consequences for the indigenous population. ChevronTexaco spilled more than 70 billion liters of toxic waste into 600 unlined pits in an area of more than 5,180 square kilometers. This toxic dumping has affected an indigenous community of 30,000 and has led to the loss of 1 million hectares of rain forest.

The health damage incurred by the indigenous population has been documented in the village of San Carlos, which contains more than 30 oil wells constructed by ChevronTexaco. One of the first studies on the effects of oil pollution on people’s health in that village was carried out by two medical doctors in collaboration with the University of London’s Department of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The study, called the “Yana Curi” report (yana curi is the local indigenous term for “oil” or “black gold”), found that cancer rates in San Carlos exceed the average by up to 30 times.

For several years the residents of San Carlos had been exposed to more than 3.8 million liters of oil and toxic waste-water dumped by ChevronTexaco. Exposure occurred through several routes, including absorption through the skin, ingestion of contaminated food and water, and inhalation of oil and related gases.

It is estimated that the water used by local residents for drinking, bathing and laundering contains nearly 150 times the amounts considered safe for substances such as hydrocarbons. The study also found the risk of cancer of the stomach, liver, bile duct and skin for those living in San Carlos was more than double the average. ChevronTexaco claims that these results were only preliminary and not worth analyzing.

According to Cristobal Bonifaz, an environmental lawyer who is now suing ChevronTexaco, the company used inadequate extraction techniques, in the process spilling waste products into creeks and rivers rather than pumping it back into the ground as is commonly done elsewhere. Bonifaz states that because of pipe breakages, the amount of crude pumped into the ground was nearly double the volume spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

In November of 1993, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents of the rain forest area known as Oriente was launched in a U.S. District Court in New York, close to ChevronTexaco’s world headquarters in Westchester County. Although the plaintiffs wanted the case to be tried in New York, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that it should be conducted in Ecuador. But in an important decision, the court also stated that any judgment against the oil company would be enforced in America. U.S. courts will also reassert jurisdiction if ChevronTexaco refuses to cooperate with the litigation in Ecuador.

The suit charges that ChevronTexaco dumped nearly 70 million liters of toxic waste into hundreds of unlined open pits, and from there it seeped into estuaries and rivers from 1964 to 1992, thus exposing residents to carcinogenic pollutants. The plaintiffs want a thorough cleanup of the area, an assessment of the long-term health effects of the contamination and damage compensation, which could total more than $1 billion.

If ChevronTexaco is found liable in a fair trial, it will be not only a victory for the environmental movement but also for the thousands of indigenous people whose survival and quality of life have been affected by the careless exploitation of oil on their lands.