The company, ordered to pay $19,000 for throwing taking toxic waste into the Amazon, accused the plaintiffs of corruption of judges
Ermel Chávez of the Front for the Defense of the Amazon show a stick just taken out of a “pool” of oil. (PHOTO BY ORSETTA BELLANI)
“I was born 200 meters away from the oil well, being raised in this disaster was normal for me. Only when I moved to another place I realized that life is different over here”, says Donald Moncayo, who spent his childhood in and around the town of Lago Agrio, in northeastern Ecuador. Lago Agrio is located in the Amazonian province of Sucumbios and has been the scene of one of the largest environmental disasters in the world: between 1964 and 1990 the U.S. oil company Texaco – merged with Chevron in 2001- poured around 68 billion liters of toxic water and 680 thousand barrels of crude into the Amazon.
“Chevron opened ‘pools’ near every oil well, where it dumped toxic waste,” explains Ermel Chavez, leader of the Front for the Defense of the Amazon. “The pools were not coated and therefore fluids leaked into rivers and aquifers. Texaco drilled more than 300 wells in the Ecuadorian jungle and created some 880 pools: this area is completely contaminated.”
What in Sucumbios is called “pools”, are actually giant oil puddles in the middle of the jungle. Communities live around the wells abandoned by Chevron, people drink water from wells and children play near the pools. The Texaco disaster has not only had a serious impact on the ecosystem, but also on the health of the population. In this area, the rate of cancer, spontaneous abortions and congenital malformations are the highest in the country. In addition, the environmental crisis forced the displacement of indigenous peoples of the area, whose health and life is directly linked to the health of the territory.
“Drilling mud and testing oil were thrown to the pools, as well as the waters that resulted from washing the wells. In 1996, Chevron began repairing 150 pools, by covering them with dirt. Now I will show that it was not an actual repair,” complains Donald Moncayo, a resident of the area, while getting a sample of ground from the repaired pool. He submerges it in a water-filled boat, and shortly it becomes oily and black as oil. However, after the false remediation, the Ecuadorian state freed the company from all liability.
The story of the Chevron-Texaco legal process is very long: in 1993 a group of people – who later formed the Front to Defend the Amazon, bringing together some 30 thousand people – sued Texaco, and in February 2011 a Sucumbios court ordered the company to pay $ 9.5 million to fix the damage and to offer public apologies. The apologies haven’t been offered, and the following year, the court applied the established penalty: doubling the fine. Now Chevron has to pay $ 19,000, the highest fine imposed on transnational environmental damage.
“The process is however not over. We won here in Sucumbios but the sentence hasn´t been enforced, we are working on that,” said Pablo Fajardo, head of the legal team of the Amazon Defense Front, the David that beat Goliath. “Chevron paid nothing. A judge ordered the seizure of their shares and dividends but the company is no longer in Ecuador. Anyway, we managed to impose an international convention intended for the measure to be effective in other countries such as Argentina, which is freezing Chevron’s money in a special account on behalf of those affected in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We expect to act the same way in other countries: we are expecting a ruling in Canada to go ahead with the judgment, our goal is to continue to collect the last penny they owe us to clean all this.”
However, in early June, the Argentina Supreme Court overturned the seizure of the assets of Chevron Argentina and on October 15 a new process will start in New York, in which the company asks for penal, financial compensation and a public statement admitting that the Sucumbios judgment was obtained illegally.
“The company says it is a fraudulent statement, but the damage here, the evidence is so strong that you do not need corrupting a judge. Let them prove they did not pollute the environment,” said the lawyer Pablo Fajardo.