An international arbitration court made the latest ruling in favor of Chevron in the never-ending legal case between Chevron and Ecuadorian residents who claim their land and water was contaminated by the company over a period of decades. The ruling has spurred outrage in the indigenous and environmental community.
Plaintiffs are local residents in Ecuador’s region of the Amazon called Lago Agrio, where residents argue Texaco (later bought by Chevron) dumped toxic waste in the region for decades resulting in devastating environmental damage and health consequences for residents. Many experts consider it the biggest oil-related disaster in history, with the total area affected 30 times larger than the Exxon-Valdez spill.
Chevron Dumps Contaminated Waste into Ecuadorean Waters
From 1964 to 1992, Texaco, a major multinational oil giant of the time, searched for oil and then drilled in the Ecuadorean rainforest. Instead of safely disposing of the produced waste, Chevron allegedly dumped the cancerous sludge and toxic “produced water” into local streams and rivers. As a result, sediment was contaminated and local residents drank, bathed in and fished in toxic water for decades. Repercussions to date are increased rates of cancer, respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, deformities, abnormal births and spontaneous miscarriages among others.
In 2011, Chevron was found guilty by an Ecuadorean court of deliberately dumping 16 billion gallons of produced water into waterways and leaving more than 1000 toxic pits in the forests unattended. The court ordered Chevron to $8 billion in compensation, which was later confirmed and raised to $9.5 billion in 2013 by the Ecuadorean Supreme Court. The court found that Chevron;
- In a bid to cut production costs adopted substandard operation measures in Ecuador and resulted in what experts believe is “possibly the most damaging oil-related disaster of all time.”
- Blatantly disregarded its own contractual obligation, Ecuadorean environmental laws, and oil industry standards of the time.
- Caused “massive environmental damage to an area the size of Rhode Island” and unless comprehensively cleaned up will cause huge health problems to thousands of Ecuadoreans.
Chevron has fought the guilty verdict ever since along with its law firm Gibson Dunn. Although Chevron insisted on moving the trial from New York Courts to Ecuador and accepted jurisdiction in Ecuador, Chevron has refused to pay the judgment and called the decision “illegitimate and inapplicable.” Chevron has accused plaintiffs of achieving the judgment through bribery of officials in the region.
In March 2014, a U.S. court agreed with Chevron and said the 2011 Ecuadorian verdict was obtained through “coercion, bribery, money laundering and other misconduct.” In August 2016, the U.S. court’s verdict was upheld by an appeals court.
Then last Friday, Chevron announced a tribunal administered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also agreed with Chevron and the existence of corruption in the Ecuadorian judgment against the company. In the coming months, another trial will be held to determine the damages cost to Chevron, but Ecuador has vowed to fight on and appeal the verdict.
Forty civil society organizations and indigenous rights groups in the U.S. and Latin America blasted the ruling, calling it a secret “kangaroo court” designed to help corporate polluters evade environmental lawsuits. The groups said the court barred indigenous groups from presenting evidence, testifying, or even attending the proceedings.
A press release from the Amazon Defense Coalition stated:
“The decision by the arbitrators relied on false evidence presented by Chevron from a witness paid $2 million by the company and it violates international law and Ecuador’s Constitution and therefore cannot be enforced, said Aaron Marr Page, a U.S. lawyer and authority on the trade arbitration process. The secret trade court proceeding also was part of the company’s SLAPP strategy designed to demonize and intimidate its opponents as a way to escape liability given the overwhelming evidence against it.”
Chevron Threatens Lifetime of Litigation, Harasses Activists
Plaintiffs and environmentalists claim Chevron has resorted to delay tactics and even threatened the lawyers and activists who have been following the case with a “lifetime of litigation.”
Steven Donziger, a U.S.-based and Harvard educated lawyer who is the head of the legal team in the case against Chevron has been subject to numerous attacks from the company including a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) attack that has in the corporate world been called the ‘mother of all SLAPP attacks.’
A SLAPP attack is a lawsuit normally filed by corporations or governments against individuals whom they deem to be critics or obstacles. They are often dressed as defamation or racketeering cases and aim at harassing, frustrating, denting resources, intimidation and finally silencing the accused.
In the attack, Chevron sued Donziger for $60 billion and also sued some other 47 impoverished Ecuadorians who signed lawsuits on behalf of the thousands in their country. It has also spent at least $2 billion to hire 60 law firms and over 2000 lawyers for these attacks and to evade the liability.
Activists also consider the Hague’s ruling part of Chevron’s SLAPP tactics.
In its latest attempt at evading justice, Chevron has through Gibson Dunn issued a new subpoena in the U.S. seeking to have access to the emails of 57 prominent supporters of Donziger and Ecuadoreans in this case. They include Katie Sullivan who has been helping in financing the litigation processes, Rex Weyler, the founder of Greenpeace and Karen Hinton, a U.S. spokesperson for the suffering Ecuadoreans.
“Chevron for decades has been killing off indigenous groups and farmer communities in the Amazon by failing to clean up its pollution, and now it issues subpoenas in the U.S. to try to harass those trying to hold it accountable,” said Patricio Salazar, an Ecuadorean lawyer representing the affected communities and who has also been targeted in the subpoena. “But it can be assured it won’t work,” he added.
To solidify their effort, environmental groups have formed a coalition in support of Donziger and hope to force Chevron into compliance. Their effort has also started receiving widespread support as the world is now realizing the environmental crimes and human suffering that has for long been hidden in the Ecuadorean rainforest.