Oil Giant Ordered to Pay Record $9 Billion to Ecuadorian Rainforest Communities
15 February 2011 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109
B-ROLL and interviews with affected communities available upon request
Quito, Ecuador – Plaintiffs gathered in Quito after oil giant Chevron was found guilty yesterday of massive environmental contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon and was ordered to pay $9 billion in fines in one of the largest environmental damages awards on record. The ruling comes after more than 17 years of litigation brought by thousands of indigenous peoples and farmers still living amidst deadly contamination in the northeastern Amazon region of Ecuador.
"This is a great victory," said Emergildo Criollo, a Cofán leader and plaintiff in the case who lives in the northern Amazon in Ecuador, a region that remains devastated by contamination. "Our fight won't stop until Chevron is held accountable and pays for all the damage it left in the Amazon Rainforest."
Superior Court Judge Nicolas Zambrano handed down the decision in the small jungle town of Lago Agrio, levying fines for the company's deliberate dumping of 18.5 billion gallons of highly toxic waste into Amazonian ecosystems, contaminating the soil, rivers, and groundwater for over three decades. In addition to his ruling of $9 billion, which incudes a legally mandated 10% for the Amazon Defense Coalition who brought the case, the judge added an additional $8.6 billion in punitive damages if Chevron fails to publicly apologize for its wrongdoing within 15 days.
The judgment ranks second in environmental damage cases behind the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility for the BP Gulf spill and is the first time an American company has been held accountable in foreign courts for environmental crimes abroad.
"This is a great moment for the thousands of Ecuadorians who have waged an epic battle to hold Chevron accountable for one of the worst oil-related disasters on the planet," said Kevin Koenig, Northern Amazon Coordinator at Amazon Watch. "This verdict vindicates what indigenous peoples and local residents have been saying, and suffering from, for decades- that Chevron drilled, dumped, and never looked back."
The decision is unprecedented not only for the size of the judgment but also for the scale of contamination that Chevron left behind. Chevron inherited the litigation in 2001 when it absorbed Texaco, who operated in Ecuador between 1964 and 1992 in a concession spanning more than one million acres of rainforest near the Colombian border. Trial evidence provided by a team of experts appointed by the court to assess damages showed that 100% of Texaco's former oil production sites in Ecuador are highly contaminated with cancer-causing toxins.
"Justice does exist," said Guillermo Grefa, a Kichwa representative to the Assembly of Affected Communities who brought the class action suit on behalf of 30,000 residents of the Amazon region. "I can now dream of drinking clean water, water with no oil residue, and that the earth will begin to clean and heal."
As the sole operator of an oil consortium that included Ecuador's state oil company, Texaco designed, built, and maintained an oil production system of 327 wells. Using antiquated technology and in violation of standard industry practice, the company dumped 18.5 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into streams and rivers, spilled some 17 million gallons of crude oil, and left behind more than 1000 waste pits that continue to leech toxins into surrounding soil and water. The pollution has caused a spike in cancer rates and decimated the cultures of various indigenous groups in the area, according to the lawsuit.
The closely watched litigation was filed in 1993 in US federal court and transferred to Ecuador at Chevron's request. During its arguments to move the action to Ecuador, the company filed 14 expert affidavits praising Ecuador's courts as fair and adequate, although in recent months—as the evidence turned against it—Chevron has attacked the court process, claiming it is biased.
"This is a historic victory for human rights, environmental justice, and corporate accountability," said Han Shan of Amazon Watch. "Furthermore, the verdict against Chevron was based partly on the company's own evidence, and handed down in a court of the company's own choosing.
Chevron has vowed to fight enforcement of the decision and will appeal.
"It is a critical benchmark in a long struggle for justice," added Shan, "a struggle that will not end until the affected communities get the cleanup, clean water, and critical health care they need, and have sought for so long."