By Michelle R. Smith, Associated Press
22 May 2003
San Ramon, California - Leaders of Ecuadorean indigenous communities who claim ChevronTexaco destroyed their rain forest home during decades of oil drilling have asked residents in the company's own hometown to press for a clean up of the mess.
Flanked by local residents and environmental activists on Thursday, the leaders also asked ChevronTexaco CEO David O'Reilly to meet with them as they wrapped up a two-week trip to San Ramon.
"We realize that there are two faces to this company," Wilmer Piaguaje, president of the Secoya people, said before marching to the headquarters. "One is the one that is presented here, very clean, very comfortable. The other is in Ecuador and is completely different."
The groups, whose members live in the Amazon region, sued ChevronTexaco earlier this month in Ecuador, claiming the company has pumped contaminated water into open pits that poisoned drinking water and led to higher rates of diseases including cancer.
The suit was filed in the South American country after U.S. courts refused the hear the case on jurisdictional grounds.
The lawsuit, which covers about 30,000 Ecuadoreans, did not specify an amount. Steven Donziger, the groups' New York-based lawyer, said it would cost about $1 billion to clean the land and treat the health problems caused by the pollution. He said scientific studies have established a link between the contaminated water and elevated disease rates.
ChevronTexaco has denied creating the problems and said it followed Ecuadorean environmental laws. The company paid $40 million in a clean-up agreement that the Ecuadorean government signed off on in 1998.
A spokesman for the San Ramon-based firm, Jeff Moore, called the suit's claims baseless and said it would be inappropriate for O'Reilly to meet with a group of people who are suing the company. Moore said the payout was not an admission of wrongdoing.
The 350-person Secoya tribe lives in three villages on the banks of the Aguarico River in northeastern Ecuador. Piaguaje, who spoke through a Spanish translator, said the streams that run through those villages were contaminated from oil operations upstream.
He described health problems such as cancer and bad skin rashes and sores from bathing in polluted water.
"Even today, you will see waste pits throughout the region," Piaguaje said.
The lawsuit alleges that a Texaco subsidiary that operated from the early 1970s until the early 1990s took advantage of lax Ecuadorean environmental standards to cut costs by dumping wastewater brought to the surface by drilling into open pits. Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001.
Moore said ChevronTexaco had not yet seen the lawsuit and would not discuss it in detail.
"The plaintiffs in the case have not presented any credible and independently substantiated scientific evidence to support their claims," he said.
Local residents and religious leaders said they planned to form a fact-finding delegation to travel to Ecuador. They urged others in San Ramon to take some action to respond to the suffering and degradation that has hit parts of Ecuador.
"It is poisoning the earth. It is poisoning the Amazon," said Pastor Steve Harms of Peace Lutheran Church in neighboring Danville. "If we refuse to act, it will poison our lives and our hearts."
© 2003. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.Copyright 2003. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.