Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Rain Forest Jekyll and Hyde?

By Bob Herbert, New York Times
20 October 2005

Please welcome the latest entry to the Chutzpah Hall of Fame: the mighty Chevron Corporation.

On Oct. 28, during a gala ceremony at its headquarters in San Ramon, Calif., the company, which until May was known as ChevronTexaco, will honor the latest recipients of the annual Chevron Conservation Awards. The awards are meant to recognize the achievements of men and women who have "helped to protect wildlife, restore wilderness, create natural preserves and parks, and institute educational programs to heighten environmental awareness."

Meanwhile, Chevron's lawyers are in Ecuador defending the company against charges that it contributed to one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet. The company is accused of dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste, over a period of 20 years, into the soil and water of a previously pristine section of the Amazon rain forest.

According to a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of some 30,000 impoverished residents of the rain forest, this massive, long-term pollution has ruined portions of the jungle, contaminated drinking water, sickened livestock, driven off wildlife and threatened the very survival of the indigenous tribes, which have been plagued with serious illnesses, including a variety of cancers.

Chevron, which likes to promote itself as a champion of the environment, contends that no such catastrophe occurred. A spokesman told me yesterday that the billions of gallons of waste that was dumped "wasn't necessarily toxic."

"We've done inspections," the spokesman said. "We've done a deep scientific analysis, and that analysis has shown no harmful impacts from the operations. There just aren't any."

You would have a very difficult time selling that story to the people in the rain forest who have been drinking and bathing in water fouled with the byproducts of oil-drilling processes. Parents have watched their children play and their livestock feed in areas contaminated with oily substances. Pits that perpetually ooze gunk and oil are ubiquitous.

Two years ago, a reporter from The Times interviewed a man named René Arévalo who lived near a separation plant that was once operated by a Texaco subsidiary. The house in which Mr. Arévalo and his five children lived had been built on a mound of dirt that covered a pit where wastewater had been dumped.

The family got its water from a well. "If you dig here just a meter deep," said Mr. Arévalo, "you hit oil. The water is contaminated, very contaminated. But we drink it. What else can we do?"

Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001. From the early 1970's to 1992, the Texaco subsidiary was part of a consortium that ran the oil-drilling operations in an area of virgin rain forest known simply as the Oriente - the East. Texaco discovered oil there in the late 60's.

According to nearly all accounts, neither Texaco nor its primary partner in the consortium, Ecuador's state oil company - Petroecuador - paid much attention to the effects of the venture on the surrounding environment and its people. Tremendous amounts of waste generated from the drilling, extraction, processing and transportation operations - billions upon billions of gallons - were dumped into unlined pits in the ground or poured into freshwater streams.

"The systematic way that they disposed of toxic waste in Ecuador was to dump it into open-air pits that they dug out of the jungle soil, or directly into rivers, streams and swamps in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet," said Steven Donziger, who is part of a team of American and Ecuadorean lawyers handling the lawsuit.

Crude oil was also spilled in the jungle, millions of gallons of it.

Disasters of this kind, involving poor people in remote areas of foreign countries, tend to stay low on the level of awareness of the American news media. The suffering tends to go unnoticed by the outside world.

The families in the vicinity of the Ecuadorean oil-drilling operations have had to drink from contaminated rivers and streams because they had such limited access to running water. And any pollution-related illnesses they may contract pose an even greater danger than normal because of their abject poverty and the absence of adequate health care.

Officials at Chevron do not see any of this as their problem. They will tell you that they've cleaned up any mess they might have made, and then some. And they will deny to their dying breath that they have harmed anyone.

After all, they're champions of the environment.