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Opinion

Oil company responsible for health, environmental damage

Tracey Pollock

October 2, 2009

Are you sick of hearing about oil companies screwing over (scamming) communities? I am for sure, but it seems like a habitual pattern of multi-billion dollar, multi-national companies that don’t take responsibility for environmental catastrophes done by their hand. Or, in the case of Chevron corporation, purchased liabilities of another multi-billion dollar oil company (Texaco) that caused horrific environmental harm through the oil extraction process.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the disaster in the northern Amazon corridor in Ecuador, which many environmental groups are calling “Amazon Chernobyl.” 30,000 Ecuadorians, including five indigenous tribes, are suing Chevron in a precedent-setting class action lawsuit for compensation for environmental damages and health problems. A court-appointed scientific expert has recommended a fine as large as $27 billion, which would be the largest award given for environmental damages in history. Originally filed in 1993, the trial has yet to be resolved.

This debacle began back in 1964 when Texaco discovered oil in a secluded region of the Amazon rainforest in northern Ecuador, known as the Oriente. People of the area lived according to ancient traditions with little influence of the modern world, depending on the forest and the river for survival. Texaco set up operation with the bless- ing of the Ecuador government, who assumed the company would use the same standard of operation as in the United States.

Unfortunately for thousands of residents and the ecosystem, Texaco set up an oil extraction system that was cheap and sub-standard. Over the next 15 years, the oil extraction process created 18.5 billion gallons of toxic produced water that went directly into the waterways, they operated 916 unlined open-air toxic ponds on the jungle floor and released numerous chemicals into the air through production processes like gas flaring. Texaco only put a thin layer of dirt over the toxic ponds in their “clean up” efforts, which probably isn’t the correct procedure when handling toxic waste. 100 percent of areas (an area the size of Rhode Island) inspected have illegal levels of toxic hydrocarbons.

Texaco sold their oil operation to the Ecuadorian state oil company Petroecuador in 1990. Petroecuador is also guilty of dumping toxic water and chemicals into waterways and the forest, but it was Texaco that set up the infrastructure and executed the oil operation for the longest period of time.

As a result, thousands of Amazon residents are suffering from cancer, rashes, miscarriages and children are born with severe birth defects. The Ecuadorians claim that hundreds have died of cancer in their communities due to the pollution.

None of the communities in the vicinity of the Texaco operation have indoor plumbing and rely
on the waterways or rainwater for drinking, bathing and cooking water. Some residents said they could see oil floating on top of the water, but they had to use the water out of necessity of survival.

Ecuadorians originally filed their lawsuit against Texaco in 1993 in a New York court for severe environmental degradation. Texaco petitioned the court to move the trial to Ecuador for a “fair” trail. I think it’s obvious they took this action to evade the stricter US laws that would surely convict them of culpability of the damage. The case was moved to Ecuador in 2003 and has not been resolved yet. The case is in the final stages, with a dollar amount assigned to the damage.

Chevron corporation purchased Texaco in 2001 and inherited the liability of the environmental damages of this case. Chevron claims they are not liable for damage in this case, and the lawsuit has become a media circus. Though they originally petitioned to get a trial in Ecuador, they now claim they will not get a fair trial. They even went as far to get the judge removed from the case because of his “bias towards the defense,” releasing a video (that is probably doctored, according to environmental groups) that implies the judge accepted a bribe to rule against the company.

Interestingly enough, two Chevron lawyers and seven former government officials have been indicted for criminal fraud in this case. Chevron lobbyists also pressured US trade officials to pull trade agreements with Ecuador during the trial, to punish the Ecuador government for allowing the trial to happen (http://www.newsweek.com/id/149090).

Chevron is playing dirty and trying to weasel their way out of giving proper compensation to the thousands who have suffered and continue to suffer the impacts of pollution every day.

Chevron’s Web site states: “Our community engagement programs are an integral part of our commitment of human rights and focus on improving access to basic needs, supporting education and health care and promoting economic livelihood.” Maybe they’ve forgotten what’s going down in Ecuador.

Tracey Pollock is an alumna of UW-River Falls.