Cleaning the sour lake

Cleaning the sour lake

Natives of oil-polluted Ecuador call out Chevron

By Amanda Witherell

Pablo Fajardo, Humberto Piaguaje, and Guillermo Grefa – three natives of Ecuador – recently made a visit to the Bay Area, but not as mere tourists.

“I’ve come here to inform you, San Francisco, so that you here might know what Chevron does outside the borders of the United States,” Fajardo said at a press conference outside City Hall. “They are contributing to the destruction of humanity on a global level.”

Fajardo is one of the lead litigators in a 14-year-old civil action lawsuit against Texaco (which was purchased by the Chevron Corp. in 2001) accusing the multinational oil company of business practices that soured the lakes, streams, soil, air, and lives of the residents of Lago Agrio (“sour lake” in Spanish). Texaco was based in this rainforest region for 28 years and operated 343 wells and processing plants that pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil through a 300-mile exposed pipeline over the Andes. The plaintiffs allege that substandard storage and handling of the oil and its toxic byproducts during those productive years have poisoned an area three times the size of Manhattan.

Chevron contends that it has adequately cleaned up 45 sites and anything beyond that is the responsibility of PetroEcuador, a government-owned company with which Texaco had a partnership for use, ownership, and maintenance of the wells.

Chevron is the sixth largest oil company in the world and the richest corporation in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle recently dubbed Chevron its “corporation of the year” after the oil company posted $17 billion in profits in 2006.

But by the end of this year, Chevron may have a new distinction: loser of the largest environmental remediation case ever litigated. Even though legal scholars say it’s quite possible the Ecuador court will rule against Chevron, company executives still haven’t set aside any money or fully informed shareholders of this potential liability.

A resident of Lago Agrio since he was 14, Fajardo received his law degree through correspondence school coursework just three years ago, and this is the first case he’s argued. But he’s not alone. His legal team includes New York-based Steve Donziger and a bankroll from Philadelphia’s Kohn, Swift and Graf. The recent trip was also supported by the San Francisco organizations Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network.

“This was to put a message to the Bay Area. This is your homegrown oil company,” Amazon Watch’s executive director, Atossa Soltani, said. “This is an opportunity to hold them accountable. We need to demand they uphold the values of this community.”

While in town, Fajardo invited Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to tour one of the 600 unlined oil pits that are seeping sludge into the drinking water of 30,000 Lago Agrians.

“I know that you have close ties to this company,” Fajardo wrote in a letter to Schwarzenegger. “I have read that Chevron has donated over $600,000 to your campaigns and inaugurations. I have also read that your former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Chevron. However, I have faith because I know you are a man of the environment. You are making California a leader in the United States on almost every environmental issue. You are what they call a ‘green’ governor.”

The governor is still reviewing the letter, his spokesperson Aaron McLear said, and has not yet decided on taking a field trip to the country. According to an Associated Press article, at an April 24 press conference Schwarzenegger was asked why he turned down an offer to meet the Ecuadorans. He responded, “Everyone has their own ideas of what it is to be an environmentalist and to protect the environment.”

To convey their idea of what it means to be a good corporate citizen, Piaguaje and Grefa busted into the April 25 annual shareholders meeting at Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, as guests of Soltani and RAN executive director Michael Brune – who both happen to own a little stock in the company.

As three dozen protesters stood outside the meeting holding a banner that read, “Tell shareholders the toxic truth,” the usual crowd of well-heeled investors dressed in prim suits and trim neckties mingled inside.

Two individuals looked a little different. Grefa wore a pale green shirt and a thick rope of multicolored beads around his neck. Beside him sat Piaguaje, in a long red tunic with a traditional headdress covering his black hair. During the question period of the meeting, they addressed Chevron board president David O’Reilly.

“Our fight is not for money,” Piaguaje, the Secoya tribe leader, said through a translator. “We want you to give back our lives. We want to live in peace, harmoniously with nature. Above all, we want justice. We will continue to fight until we get justice or we will die in our struggle.”

“The problems you have there,” O’Reilly responded, “you need to take up with the government. There’s no credible evidence that Texaco did anything wrong.”

The plaintiffs argue that Chevron’s $40 million remediation job during the ’90s is an implicit admission of some level of guilt.

Chevron says it’s being attacked for the size of its purse. At the shareholders meeting, company executives proudly reported the company made $17.1 billion last year, will be investing about $15 billion in oil exploration, and is kicking off 30 new capital projects at the cost of $1 billion apiece.

Should the Ecuadoran plaintiffs prevail, the cost of a real cleanup has been estimated at $6 billion – enough to hinder just half a dozen of Chevron’s new oil wells. Chevron contends the figure is grossly inflated. “This $6 billion assessment was made by a consultant hired by the attorneys [on the plaintiffs’ side] who only spent three days there,” one of Chevron’s lawyers, Ricardo Veija, told the Guardian.

“He was there for a few weeks, actually,” said the environmental scientist at his side, Sara McMillen, who’s consulting for Chevron on the case. She added that the consultants asked other experts to consider the figure. “They actually bust out laughing when they hear that number,” she said. “It’s more than the cost of Exxon Valdez.”

But Fajardo contends the spills in Lago Agrio are larger than the Valdez tanker spill – 30 times larger, in fact (18.5 billion gallons versus 11 million). He said Ecuadorans are more interested in drinking clean water and being treated like humans than squeezing money from Chevron.

Because of the trial, Fajardo was not allowed to attend the shareholders meeting, but we asked what he would say to O’Reilly if they were face-to-face.

“If I could speak with him,” Fajardo said in clear, direct words, as if talking to a child who doesn’t want to listen, “I would tell him that I think human beings are the same. We have the same rights no matter what part of the world we live in. This company has caused great harm. Instead of spending millions of dollars in defense, they could be investing money in cleanup. It’s a question of justice.”

Fajardo, his stern brow softening as he considered his words, added, “I’d also tell him I have nothing against him personally. I respect him like I respect every other person.”

Originally published May 1, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian