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in Ecuador Viewed As Key Pollution Fight
U.S. Legal Team Suing ChevronTexaco
Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2003; Page E01
tourists wanting to see the Ecuadoran Amazon, Lago Agrio is a
major jumping off point. But the area right around the city of
26,000 has no flora and fauna to speak off, despite being
surrounded by what used to be the rain forest.
blame the dearth of life in the Oriente region on 30 years of oil
drilling and exploration by the company that is now ChevronTexaco
American legal team has flown to Lago Agrio and today plans to
file a billion-dollar lawsuit against ChevronTexaco on behalf of
88 Ecuadoran plaintiffs. The case, which kicked around the U.S.
courts for nine years before being sent to Ecuador, is being
closely watched by public-interest lawyers and multinational
experts say it could be a groundbreaking case, establishing a new
way for environmental activists to force multinational
corporations to pay for what activists say is environmental
multinational corporations often try to get cases tried in
developing countries, a tactic that can kill the case entirely
because most American plaintiffs lawyers have neither the money
nor the expertise to sue in Third World courts. Later if the
corporations lose, they often argue that the overseas legal
process was flawed or that their U.S. headquarters should not be
held responsible for the errors of a subsidiary in the developing
courts also have had problems making U.S. multinational companies
obey their decisions.
the ChevronTexaco lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Second Circuit agreed last year with ChevronTexaco's request to
send the case to Ecuador. The judges, however, warned
ChevronTexaco that U.S. courts would step back in if the company
tried to avoid a judgment imposed by the Ecuadoran court.
Jochnick, a New York lawyer who founded the Center for Economic
and Social Rights, said that if this approach -- oversight by the
U.S. courts of a foreign case -- "puts pressure on the
Ecuadoran court system to perform, that might be the best
resolution. There are thousands of these cases, and there are only
so many the U.S. courts can handle."
Ecuadoran plaintiffs allege that from 1964 to 1992 the oil company
dumped 18 billion gallons of drilling byproducts into open pits
and waterways. Drinking, bathing and cooking with contaminated
water has damaged the health, culture and livelihood of five
indigenous tribes and 30,000 people, they allege.
are not just random spills. This is the result of a decision made
by Texaco to install a type of drilling process that would lead to
a systematic dumping of toxins," said Steven Donziger, one of
the plaintiffs' lawyers.
Bonifaz, an Ecuadoran-born Massachusetts lawyer who first brought
suit against Texaco in 1993, estimated it would cost more than $1
billion for ChevronTexaco to compensate residents, clean up the
waste pits, install new technology to prevent further dumping, and
provide medical care and monitoring.
officials responded that Ecuador's national oil company set policy
for the venture, and that the drilling met all of the country's
environmental requirements. Ecuador's laws allowed oil drillers to
dump wastewater, rather than making them use the more expensive
process, mandated in the United States, of re-injecting the
oil-contaminated water back into the well.
addition, company officials said Texaco, which merged with Chevron
in 2001, paid $40 million to survey and clean up more than 250
company also disputes the environmentalists' claim of health
damages. "Over 10 years of litigation have yet to produce any
credible and substantiated scientific information," said
ChevronTexaco spokesman Chris Gidez.
plaintiffs say they could not afford large scientific studies to
back up their claims, only a close look at the cancer and other
health problems in one village. That study of an area with 30 oil
wells found 10 cases of cancer in the village, resulting in a
cancer rate of more than twice the national average.
left the environment full of toxins, the rivers, the land, and a
lot of people are suffering," said Luis Yanza, a plaintiff
who has lived in the region for 26 years and now works as a
community organizer. "They haven't cleaned up the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology-affiliated toxicologist
hired by ChevronTexaco called the analysis "inadequate . . .
cursory and misleading."
is not clear how the Ecuadoran courts will respond to the lawsuit
-- oil is crucial to the country's economy and the government of
President Lucio Gutierrez is seeking foreign investment.
the plaintiffs' lawyers said the local tribes that have borne the
brunt of the alleged contamination have been gaining steadily in
political clout. Gutierrez had key backing from indigenous groups
both when he led a 2000 coup and when his supporters won elections
two years later.
Ecuadoran government changed sides in the earlier U.S. legal
proceedings over the same allegations. Right after the suit was
filed, Ecuador submitted a brief asking the U.S. judge to dismiss
the plaintiffs' claims. But after control of the government
changed hands, Ecuador intervened on the side of the plaintiffs,
saying it wanted "to protect the interests of the indigenous
citizens of the Ecuadoran Amazon who were seriously affected by
the environmental contamination."
spokesman for the Ecuadoran embassy in Washington said the
government has not taken a position on the lawsuit that is about
to be filed. But he said "it is very clear that the people in
the region have health problems and have suffered for more than 10
years. More work is needed to repair the area."
activists generally prefer to bring cases in developed-world
courts for several reasons -- the courts are more independent,
there's a corps of public-interest plaintiffs' lawyers to draw on,
and the cases draw more public attention -- that bring pressure on
companies to settle. U.S. courts are particularly attractive
because of rules that require both sides to share information and
make it relatively easy to bring class-action lawsuits on behalf
of a large group of people.
victims of the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India; a cyanide spill
in Guyana; and oil drilling pollution in Nigeria have tried to
bring cases in Europe or the United States. The defendant
companies, such as Union Carbide Corp., Cambior Inc. and Royal
Dutch/Shell Group, have argued that the trials should be held
overseas, in the countries where the events took place.
jurisdictional question has tied many of these cases up for years.
For example, a group of 450 Nicaraguan banana workers won nearly
$500 million in January in a lawsuit over the use of pesticides.
But so far they have been unable to collect from the defendant
companies -- Dow Chemical Co. and subsidiaries of Royal/Dutch
Shell and Dole Food Co. -- which contend that there were problems
with the legal process.
legal wrangling can go on for years," said Malcolm J. Rogge,
a Canadian scholar who has written about transnational
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