Reporting from Coca, Ecuador -
Abel Garrido has just struck oil and he's not happy about it.
Using a tree branch, the weathered farmer probed the edge of a
pond that his cattle use for drinking water and soon turned up the
smelly black sludge that he says has killed much of his livestock and
sickened his family.
"I've lost 30 cows," Garrido said. "I cut them open and their insides are black."
Paying the medical bills to treat his three children for skin cancer has cost him his meager savings.
"Here's the cause," Garrido said, contemplating the dark slime gleaming on the end of the branch.
The contamination at Garrido's farm and hundreds of others in a
Rhode Island-sized area here in the Ecuadorean Amazon is the basis of a
controversial, long-running civil lawsuit in which a verdict is
expected early next year.
On one side are 30,000 mostly peasant farmers like Garrido who say they
are living a health and ecological nightmare caused by careless oil
drilling and production methods that contaminated their drinking water
and spoiled their lush jungle environment.
On the other side is defendant Chevron, the San Ramon, Calif.-based
parent company which in 2001 acquired Texaco, which produced oil here
from 1972 to 1990, and which the lawsuit claims polluted a vast swath
of the Amazon. Chevron says Texaco cleaned up its share of the spills
with three years of remediation work and that the Ecuadorean government
absolved it of all future responsibility in 1998.
The oil giant blames Petroecuador for any ongoing spills and for not
following through on its share of the cleanup. Texaco was 37.5% partner
in the oil field venture, and Petroecuador owned the rest.
The Ecuadorean plaintiffs claim that Chevron never adequately cleaned
up hundreds of oil catch basins and spills of drilling muds that
continue to contaminate the groundwater. They claim the settlement with
the government doesn't preclude individuals successfully suing the oil
If Garrido and other residents win, the case could set a worldwide
precedent: Foreign plaintiffs have never collected for alleged offshore
environmental damage caused by a U.S. company, said Ohio State
University environmental economist Douglas Southgate.
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Last week, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) toured the area and,
shocked by the pollution he saw, wrote a letter he said he plans to
send today to President-elect Barack Obama asking that the U.S. help
Ecuador with cleaning up and direct "relevant departments and agencies
. . . to design a plan to help fix this awful situation."
In an interview here, McGovern said that "legal wrangling aside, what I
saw demands immediate attention. This is a humanitarian and
Transferred from a New York court in 2003, the case may be decided
by a superior court judge in Lago Agrio, near Coca, within a few
months, attorneys say. The verdict may not be to Chevron's liking. In a
report filed in March, a court-appointed investigator estimated that
Chevron was liable for up to $8 billion in health and cleanup costs.
"Texaco used the pristine Amazon rain forest as a garbage can," said
Steven Donziger, a New York-based environmental attorney who represents
Chevron fired back, challenging the scientific methods of the analysis,
including the connection it made between oil spills and cancer cases.
Economist Southgate, who is a Chevron consultant, said the report also
didn't factor in Petroecuador's share of responsibility for the
pollution, or evidence that it has continued to contaminate since it
took over all ownership and operation responsibilities from Texaco in
In April, Chevron took a public relations blow when local attorney
Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community organizer Luis Yanza won the
international Goldman Environmental Prize for leading the legal battle
against Chevron, a prize the oil company bitterly criticized.
In September, the Ecuadorean government indicted two of Chevron's
Ecuadorean lawyers, accusing them of falsifying scientific evidence
used to show that Texaco's remediation measures in the 1990s were
effective. Chevron denied the charges.
Chevron attorneys have petitioned U.S. Trade Representative Susan
Schwab to cancel the trade breaks Ecuador receives from the United
States for its role in helping fight drug trafficking, claiming that
President Rafael Correa had prejudiced the oil contamination case in
public statements, limiting Chevron's chances of getting a fair trial.
Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said that if the company lost in
Ecuador, it would appeal the verdict, possibly before a World Bank
tribunal or at The Hague.
Chevron has left the door open for a negotiated settlement, but
previous overtures to the Ecuadoreans have been rebuffed, he said.
Garrido, who has owned the 80-acre farm since 1981, said he didn't know
or care who is to blame; he only wants to be given money to buy a new
farm somewhere else, where he can escape the sight, smell and health
effects of the oil.
"When I bought the farm in 1981, the oil was here, but they told us it
was good for us, that it had a lot of vitamins," Garrido said. "That
was just to fool us."