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Main News; Foreign Desk; National
The World Ecuadorean Court to Handle Villagers vs. ChevronTexaco
Carla D'Nan Bass and T. Christian Miller
Special to the Times

Los Angeles Times
Home Edition
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

QUITO, Ecuador -- Lawyers representing some 30,000 impoverished Ecuadoreans are expected to sue ChevronTexaco Corp. today, accusing the second-largest U.S. oil company of contaminating the rainforest and sickening local residents.

The suit alleges that a ChevronTexaco unit discharged billions of gallons of contaminated water, causing widespread pollution and illness. The company rejects the charges. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals put aside a similar suit, saying the issue should be tried in Ecuador.

Experts said that a victory for the plaintiffs would shake multinationals who have often sought to have suits tried abroad in order to take advantage of countries with weak legal systems.

"The stakes are very high," said Alejandro M. Garro, a professor of Latin American law at Columbia University. "We have a global economy with international businesses, but we don't have a global justice system."

The ChevronTexaco suit is one of the oldest lawsuits that have been filed in U.S. courts seeking to hold multinational corporations responsible for environmental damage by their operations in foreign countries.

The suit will be filed under a new Superfund-style law in Ecuador mandating that companies pay for pollution cleanup costs. However, legal experts were unsure whether the country's already overwhelmed court system could handle a lawsuit involving more than 30,000 victims and complicated scientific and environmental issues.

The claims in the suit stem from oil pumping in a remote region of northeastern Ecuador around the town of Lago Agrio.

The suit alleges that a subsidiary of ChevronTexaco's corporate predecessor, Texaco, dumped approximately 18.5 billion gallons of water polluted by oil pumping into unlined pits and rivers between 1971 and 1992. The suit also claims that over the decades, the company was responsible for 50% more spilled oil than resulted from the Exxon Valdez disaster.

ChevronTexaco, of San Ramon, on Tuesday dismissed the lawsuit's claims. Chris Gidez, a ChevronTexaco spokesman, said the company had already paid $40 million to clean up its operations after the company's concession ended more than a decade ago.

"There's no credible, substantiated effort that link [the company's] practices with any of the alleged environmental or health claims they make," he said.

Lawyer Alberto Wray, who is heading the Ecuadorean legal team, announced at a news conference Tuesday that he plans to travel to Lago Agrio today to file the lawsuit.

New York lawyers in coats and ties, Amazonian Indians in feathered headdresses and Highland Indians in ponchos gathered at 10 a.m. in the headquarters of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador to drum up coverage for the case, which has taken a tortured path through the legal system since it was originally filed in New York in 1993.

In front of the rainbow-colored indigenous flag and behind giant photos of oil-filled pits labeled with the message "Don't Mess With Ecuador," residents of the Amazon region explained how they believe pollution caused by the company's petroleum operations has hurt them.

Instead of injecting the wastewater back into the ground, as was common practice in the U.S., the company disposed of it in aboveground ponds, the plaintiffs contend. Local residents say that the practice has polluted their rivers, drinking water and other sources of food, causing skin rashes, respiratory problems and even cancer.

Although there has been no comprehensive study of the effects, one small study in 1999 sponsored by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at a village in the heart of the oil region. Investigators found that the residents' chances of developing cancer were 130% greater than for residents in the capital, Quito.

"Three women of the community have died from cancer. The children are born too small and die. We aren't going to be able to live because everything is contaminated," said Laura Mendua, a member of the Cofan tribe, in her native language while another tribe member translated into Spanish.

Toxicologists hired by ChevronTexaco have dismissed the health claims, and the plaintiff's lawyers admit that the studies are too small to draw large-scale conclusions. As to the environmental damages, Gidez said the company's disposal methods were not unusual for the era, and that the company respected environmental laws.

Gidez said that the lawsuit also blames ChevronTexaco for damages that may have been caused by other activities.


Times staff writer Miller reported from Bogota, Colombia, and special correspondent Bass from Quito.




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