Testimony ends in
oil giant's Ecuador trial
by Tom Knudson
LAGO AGRIO, ECUADOR -- Testimony in the oil
pollution trial of ChevronTexaco came to a close Wednesday with a
spectacular pre-dawn lightning storm capping three days of
sometimes explosive evidence.
The final stretch of this weeklong trial included testimony from a
former minister of Ecuador's Ministry of Mines and Energy -- the
government division responsible for oil drilling -- who caught the
weary court audience's attention when he said a Texaco subsidiary
knowingly used primitive waste disposal techniques in the 1970s
Potentially just as surprising is an internal Texaco letter buried
among the thousands of pages of documents still awaiting the
judge's eyes. Presented by lawyers for the 30,000 rain forest
residents suing ChevronTexaco, it indicates the oil company
rejected the option of lining its earthen waste pits to protect
the environment as too expensive.
"The current (unlined) pits are necessary for efficient and
economical operation of our drilling ... operations. The total
cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be
$4,197,958. ... It is recommended that the pits neither be ...
lined nor filled," a Texaco manager wrote in a 1980 letter.
"They decided not to spend the money," Cristobal Bonifaz,
the lead U.S. attorney for the rain forest residents, charged in
an interview outside the courtroom. "And the consequence of
not spending money was sacrificing peoples' lives."
The documents on file with the court also detail a grim history of
spills from the Trans Ecuadorean Pipeline, which carries oil over
the Andes to world markets, including California.
From 1972 to 1989, breaks hemorrhaged 297,000 barrels of oil along
the pipeline's 300-mile path. Seventy-three percent of the oil was
spilled in what Texaco called the "East side, Amazon"
ChevronTexaco's Ecuadorean lawyers in Lago Agrio have repeatedly
declined to speak to the news media. "I can talk about
soccer, but that is all," one said in a hallway outside
In a statement released as the trial began last week, Ricardo Reis
Viega, the company's vice president and general counsel for Latin
America, flatly denied any wrongdoing. Company representatives
maintain that using unlined pits was not only legal in Ecuador at
the time, but was also standard practice in regions with clay
soil, such as the Amazon.
"Plaintiffs have failed to present any credible,
substantiated evidence to support their claims," Reis Viega
said in the statement.
"Moreover, when Texaco Petroleum completed a remediation
program in 1998, the government of Ecuador ... unconditionally
released the company from all liabilities and obligations."
After a dramatic start nine days ago, the trial bogged down in an
Ecuadorean style of justice so sluggish that on some days barely
anything happened -- and on one day, nothing at all.
But as the deadline for the first phase of the case approached
Wednesday, the pace picked up. In saunalike heat in a rundown
courthouse, Judge Alberto Guerra Bastidas queried witnesses as
lawyers -- who have almost no role in court here -- stood by,
silent and statuelike.
They listened as the judge questioned Rene Vargas Pasos, the
former energy minister who dealt with Texaco's Ecuador subsidiary
in the mid-1970s.
As beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, Vargas Pasos, now 71,
told the judge that Texaco designed and managed the oil fields
that fouled the region with vast quantities of oily waste.
"Texaco knew ... its waste pits were not well-constructed,
that they were" polluting the rain forest, Vargas Pasos said
in a subsequent interview with The Bee at a nearby motel.
"I believe they were committing a crime against the region
and the country," he added. "The consequences have
demonstrated this: hundreds of people dead and sick. The water
from the rivers is not good for drinking, not for bathing. It is a
Outside the courthouse Wednesday, there was no sympathy for the
company. A banner hung from a balcony reading: Amazon -- Libre de
ChevronToxico (Amazon -- Free of ChevronToxico). Protesters'
T-shirts read, "Clean up what you left dirty."
Among the crowd was Laura Peña, 53, who lives near a former
Texaco well outside the village of Patria Nueva, about 10 miles
"Our water is totally polluted," she said, her face grim
and serious. "In the rivers, we can't catch fish. There is
Peña, whose front yard is scarred by an abandoned oil waste pit,
said she came to town to see justice served. Not allowed in the
courtroom, she stood for hours at the door.
"I want to see if Texaco is going to have to clean up or
not," she said.
Inside the courtroom, it was impossible to tell which way Judge
Guerra Bastidas -- who will decide the case without a jury -- was
leaning. Reading from a list of questions prepared by lawyers, he
peppered witnesses while a stenographer typed frantically with her
two index fingers.
Wednesday's testimony wrapped up only the first part of the trial,
focusing on testimony and evidence. Now the judge will journey
into the rain forest to see polluted sites firsthand.
"I assume I will make an inspection of 100 to 150"
areas, he said. A final ruling, he added, could take up to six
It's not just the arduous trips into the jungle that lie ahead,
either. Guerra Bastidas faces all of the Texaco internal documents
that plaintiffs' lawyers obtained through legal discovery in the
United States, where the case first was filed.
They lie amid 5,000 pages of documents in the case that await the
The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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