San Francisco - The award Monday of the Goldman Environmental Prize to a pair of Ecuadoran activists fighting Chevron Corp. to clean up oil contamination in the Amazon rain forest brought a raging controversy over an international ecological disaster home to San Francisco.
The two men, lawyer Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community organizer Luis Yanza, were among half a dozen grassroots environmentalists from around the world who were feted at the San Francisco Opera House on Monday and awarded $150,000 apiece to continue their work on projects that range from improving sanitation in Mozambique to protecting wetlands in Puerto Rico to shutting down polluters in Russia.
"For us personally, the prize is important; it strengthens our will to keep going," said Yanza after a press conference Monday morning at the Fairmont Hotel. "It's also a political boost for all the people working all across the Amazon to protect the environment."
The prize, initiated by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman 19 years ago, has gone to Kenyan tree planter Wangari Maathai, who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and the late Nigerian playwright Ken Saro Wiwa, who fought Shell Oil Co.'s practices in his homeland.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, has called the award "on a par with the Nobel Peace Prize in terms of its recognition of courage and brilliance in protecting our environment."
But this year the award to Fajardo and Yanza has triggered a harsh response from Chevron Corp., which is being sued in Ecuadoran court for despoiling the Amazon. The company insists it cleaned up its share of the mess - described by plaintiffs as a fouled area the size of Rhode Island - and says the Goldman Foundation was hoodwinked.
"We believe they were misled," said Chevron spokesman David Samson, who also retained a room at the Fairmont to be available to the press. "We tried to reach out to the Goldman Foundation when we heard they might be in consideration, but we were stiff-armed. No one ever cared to hear our side of the story."
Richard Goldman responded with a statement reiterating his pride in Fajardo and Yanza, whom he described as "two ordinary Ecuadorans addressing a problem that impacts 30,000 of their countrymen: petrochemical waste spoiling hundreds of square miles of Amazon rain forest. Their work is motivated by a single desire: to ensure that their corner of the Amazon - one of the world's most contaminated industrial sites - is cleaned up."
He said the men were chosen through a nomination process that includes research by environmental experts from 50 organizations and five months of fact-checking by foundation staff.
The roots of the lawsuit against Chevron - in which Yanza organized thousands of plaintiffs and Fajardo is a lead attorney - date back to 1964, when Texaco began pumping oil in a remote corner of northern Ecuador, in a partnership with Petroecuador, the state oil company. The suit alleges that Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001, dumped 18 billion gallons of crude oil-tainted water in 1,000 unlined toxic waste pits.
The company left Ecuador in 1992 and carried out a $40 million cleanup, which the Ecuadoran government approved. Chevron maintains it has done its fair share. And it says Petroecuador, which continues to pump oil in the region, bears responsibility for the remainder of the problem.
"We feel confident that we'll ultimately prevail," said Chevron general counsel Charles James in a telephone interview from the company's San Ramon headquarters. "Even if they get a bogus decree out of a court in Ecuador, their ability to enforce this is going to be very limited. We would contest enforcement based on the poor (legal) process."
At the press conference, Fajardo said that a report filed earlier this month by a court-appointed expert in Ecuador found high levels of cancer and miscarriages and continuing toxic contamination, attributable at least in part to Chevron. The expert put the clean up cost at $7 billion to $16 billion.
"I live in Sucumbios, where Chevron operated. I've seen the reality for more than 20 years," Fajardo said. "The Goldman Prize allows us to tell even more people about the damage Chevron did in our country. It motivates us to continue on until we repair the damage."
For information about the Goldman Environmental Prize, go to www.goldmanprize.org
For information about Chevron's perspective on the lawsuit, go to: www.texaco.com/sitelets/ecua dor5
For information on the Amazon activists' side of the suit, go to: www.chevrontoxico.com/
E-mail Tyche Hendricks at email@example.com.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle