Probe in ChevronTexaco case going slowly


Investigators in Ecuador have completed less than 10% of a court-ordered field survey being conducted in connection with a closely watched environmental-contamination case that Amazon Indian groups are pressing here against the U.S. oil giant ChevronTexaco.

The survey is intended to cover 123 Amazon sites that plaintiffs say were polluted as a result of poor drilling and waste-management practices used in the region by a Texaco-owned subsidiary, Texpet, from 1972 to 1992. (Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001.)

The Indians, residents of the Ecuadorian provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos, where the bulk of the controversial oil operations took place, claim the contamination fouled water supplies and caused health problems ranging from skin irritation to cancer. ChevronTexaco argues the plaintiffs have no grounds because it fulfilled cleanup commitments it made in an agreement with the Ecuadorian government.

Of the 123 former oilfield sites slated for investigation, only 11—nine well sites and two crude-oil collection locations—have been examined for soil contamination since the court survey began on Aug. 18. Participants say the work has been time-consuming because it involves investigators representing not only both sides in the case but also the Nueva Loja Superior Court, the tribunal in the capital of Sucumbíos where the litigation is being heard.

The case was filed here in May 2003 after a years-long effort by plaintiffs to get their grievances heard in the United States—Texaco’s home turf—failed. The judge handling the case, Nueva Loja Superior Court President Efraín Novillo, has received extensive documentary evidence and testimony from 20 witnesses.

Inspections: a long way to go

Judge Novillo, whose ruling will be subject to appeal, doesn’t expect a final resolution to the case anytime soon. “[G]iven the complexity of the case, the evidence that has to be analyzed and the opportunity for appeal, a final ruling will not be made for two years,” Novillo tells EcoAméricas. “The [oilfield] inspections alone could take all of next year.”

As the site visits have continued, plaintiffs in recent weeks have drawn attention to evidence they’ve introduced suggesting that oil operations here took a heavy public health toll.

They point to a study in which Spanish physicians Anna-Karin Hurtig and Miguel San Sebastián say that from 1985 to 2000, 91 children were diagnosed with cancer in four local jurisdictions near oil operations, with 42 children aged 14 or younger dying of leukemia. The results, the study says, suggest “a relationship between the incidence of leukemia in children and proximity to oilfields.”

Rodrigo Pérez, an attorney who has represented ChevronTexaco in Ecuador, says there is “no scientific evidence that proves a relationship between oil exploitation and cancer.” He adds: “Though there are petroleum products that are carcinogenic, common gasoline is more carcinogenic.”

Plaintiffs charge ChevronTexaco with responsibility for the dumping of more than 464,000 barrels of toxic production water from wells. They claim oil waste contaminated the soil, wetlands, rivers, lakes and springs in a 1,900-square-mile [5,000-sq-km] area of tropical wetlands and forest that supports indigenous communities and mestizo settlers. And they allege extensive air pollution also occurred, due to the flaring of 235,000 million cubic feet of natural gas. The lawsuit is signed by 47 Amazon Indians who, according to their attorneys, represent 30,000 inhabitants of the region. The plaintiffs want a thorough cleanup, which they claim would cost US$5 billion.

Company says it met obligations

In its defense, ChevronTexaco cites the environmental-remediation work it carried out under a cleanup agreement it drafted in 1995 with the government of then-President Sixto Durán Ballén. In 1998, Ecuadorian government authorities certified completion of the work, which involved the cleanup of waste pits.

The oil company also points out that while Texpet was managing partner of the consortium that tapped Ecuador’s oil resources from 1972 to 1992, the state oil company—formerly Ecuadorian State Oil Corporation (Cepe), now Petroecuador—had a 62.5% stake in the consortium. “…[W]e carried out remediation proportional to our participation,” says ChevronTexaco Vice President Ricardo Reis Veiga, the company’s general counsel for Latin American products. “In the settlement agreement, Petroecuador assumed responsibility for cleanup of sites not included in the work plan. Petroecuador must answer for its part.”

Indeed, ChevronTexaco in June filed an arbitration claim to get Petroecuador to pay all costs the U.S. company may face as a result of the lawsuit. Ecuador rejects the claim, which ChevronTexaco says must be settled in New York under the oil consortium’s joint operating agreement. Says Ecuadorian Attorney General José María Borja: “Ecuador is a sovereign state and does not accept submitting itself to the jurisdiction of the courts and tribunals of the United States or to United States legislation.”

- Mercedes Alvaro

Efraín Novillo
Nueva Loja Superior Court
Nueva Loja, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 36) 283-0848
Carmen Pereira
Ecuadorian Attorney General’s office
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 223-2428
Rodrigo Pérez
Legal representative in Ecuador for ChevronTexaco
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 224-2348
Ricardo Reis Veiga
Vice President for Latin America Quantum Comunicaciones
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 246-7520
Miguel San Sebastián
Epidemiology and Public Health Sciences
Dept. of Public Health and Clinical Medicine
Umea University
Umea, Sweden
Tel: +(46 90) 785-1328