The multi-billion-dollar court case involving Chevron and toxic waste dumping in Ecuador gets ever murkier


The $27bn lawsuit against US oil giant Chevron over the dumping of 68bn litres of toxic wastewater into Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest has dragged on for 16 years. And with the emergence of dubious new evidence the case has taken another troubling turn.

The case began over the accusation that from 1964 to 1992 Texaco dumped wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits and directly into the Amazon waterways.

In 1998 Texaco and its then partner, Ecuadorian state oil company Petroecuador, negotiated a $40m remediation programme, releasing Texaco from further legal claims by the Ecuadorian government. In 2001, Ecuador’s General Controller, which investigates malfeasance, concluded that waste had leaked from the pits and Texaco’s cleanup fell short, leaving waste underground. A study conducted by an independent court-appointed expert showed that 42 out of 46 waste pits operated exclusively by Texaco contained levels of toxins that violated environmental norms in Ecuador and the US, posing health risks to the region’s 30,000 inhabitants and harming the environment.

Texaco, however, claims it successfully remediated agreed sites and that Petroecuador continued to pollute the region after Texaco left. The company points to its own study – Cancer Mortality and Oil Production in the Amazon Region of Ecuador, 1990-2005 – which claims the people in Ecuador’s oil-producing region “did not experience higher rates of cancer than residents of non-oil producing areas of the Andean country”.

Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001. In 2003 the Amazonian residents took on the case, represented by the non-profit group Amazon Defence Coalition (ADC).

This is the mess Chevron has inherited – the largest oil contamination in history, and potentially the biggest environmental lawsuit against a corporation.

A messy twist

The case was further complicated in September this year when Chevron posted on YouTube segments of clandestine recordings that supposedly implicated the trial judge and an Ecuadorian government official in a $3m bribery scheme. Chevron claims the footage reveals the trial judge’s determination to rule against Chevron, though the judge is not seen.

The videos were recorded by Chevron contractor Diego Borja and American businessman Wayne Hansen using hidden cameras. The judge, who has since left the case, asserts his innocence, saying the videos were doctored.

The gaps in the evidence leave questions unanswered. Chevron claims the tapes cast doubt on Ecuador’s legal system. “The government of Ecuador has seriously diminished the independence and integrity of its own judiciary,” said Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s vice-president and general counsel in a press release. “[It] is using the legal process … to avoid the environmental obligations of its state-owned oil company.”

But Chevron’s position is somewhat suspect. It is using the footage as evidence of misconduct, but has not revealed the tapes in full or how they were edited.

Additionally, Chevron spent nine years filing 14 affidavits praising the Ecuadorian courts in order to get the case moved from New York to Ecuador.

Recent evidence has also revealed that the Ecuadorian government official in the tapes is actually a car salesman with no government ties, and the American businessman who helped make the tapes is a convicted felon.

And, finally, it is curious that Chevron would offer legal representation to Borja, a contractor, and Hansen, who’s not a Chevron employee.

“The contamination isn’t the debate and Chevron knows it,” says ADC spokeswoman Karen Hinton. “They’ve created a diversion away from the evidence with the tapes … The more we learn about these tapes, the more we question Chevron’s role in making them.”

Ascertaining the tapes’ validity is another wrinkle in this drawn-out case, and in determining culpability.

A final ruling in the ADC case is expected in 2010. Maybe then the whole truth will finally rear its ugly head.

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