26 April 2007
LA VICTORIA, Ecuador: Leftist President Rafael Correa railed against U.S. oil giant Chevron Corp. on Thursday for allegedly dumping billions of gallons (liters) of toxic wastewater in Ecuador's Amazon jungle.
Leading journalists on a tour of the area near the Colombian border, Correa lifted up a fistful of greasy dirt from a small farm and said: "Soil with oil, friends."
Correa said that damage to the site, once an oil pit operated by Texaco Petroleum Co. - which merged with Chevron in 2001 - has prevented farmers such as 76-year-old Manuel Salinas from cultivating his land. Salinas also told the president that he and his family suffer from stomach and skin ailments.
Correa said the damage from Texaco's drilling was 30 times worse than that of an 11-million gallon (42 million-liter) Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaskan coast in 1989. "But it would seem that what happens in the Third World doesn't matter," he said.
An ongoing lawsuit, which opened in Ecuador in October 2003, alleges that Texaco dumped more than 18 billion gallons (68 billion liters) of oily wastewater from three decades of drilling. The plaintiffs - 30,000 Amazon Indians and settlers - are seeking US$6 billion (€4.4 billion) in damages. The plaintiffs tried for a decade to bring the case before a U.S. federal court but failed.
California-based Chevron has denied the allegations, saying Texaco followed Ecuadorean environmental laws and spent US$40 million (€29 million) on a cleanup begun in 1995.
The Ecuadorean government certified the cleanup in 1998 - a move Correa called a "fraud for the country."
"There was no cleanup here," he said. He added that the government "just covered up" the damage by dumping dirt over the contaminated soil and wastewater ponds.
The U.S.-trained economist said last month that his government supports the "affected populations" and would help the plaintiffs collect evidence.
A Chevron lawyer, Rodrigo Perez, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he is "sorry the president has taken sides."
Chevron also expressed concern in a statement late Thursday that political pressure might threaten its "access to an impartial trial." In March, Chevron said "at no point" would the company settle out of court.
The trial is not expected to be completed until at least next year, and an appeals process could take another three years.