5 May 2017
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Janine Jackson interviewed Paul Paz y Miño about Chevron’s oil spill in Ecuador for the May 5, 2017 episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: When we talk about environmental justice, the emphasis is usually on the first word. That might be what comes to mind first when you think about Chevron, formerly Texaco, dumping some 16 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into the land and water of indigenous and farmer communities in Ecuador. But when, having poisoned these communities, which have seen increases in cancer and other health problems, Chevron refuses to clean it up, and instead embarks on a decades-long effort to intimidate and silence anyone who tries to call attention to the disaster they've created and profited from – well, then, it's clear that it's a story about justice. And, in this case, years and years of cross-national organizing and solidarity.
Here with the latest on Chevron and Ecuador is Paul Paz y Miño. He's associate director at Amazon Watch. He joins us now by phone from here in New York. Welcome to CounterSpin, Paul Paz y Miño.
Paul Paz y Miño: Thank you.
JJ: Well, let's start right where we are. Environmental and human rights groups, including Amazon Watch, have just filed two amicus briefs to the Supreme Court. Each has an importantly distinct focus, but they both are aimed at reversing a particular lower court ruling. What did that ruling say?
PPM: So that ruling was a retaliatory countersuit against the very people that, as you mentioned, Chevron deliberately poisoned. What Chevron did was, they began a suit in New York right before the verdict was to be announced in Ecuador – knowing, of course, that they were going to lose, because the evidence against them was so overwhelming. They went back, ironically, to the very same place that the Ecuadorians first tried to seek justice, and Chevron argued (as Texaco) that it was improper to sue them in New York, but then went back there and preemptively waged an attack, using the RICO Act — it's a racketeering law created to go after the Mob in the ‘70s — saying that the Ecuadorians, Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network and many others were involved in a vast conspiracy to extort money from them, and that the case in Ecuador was actually a fraud. And they tried to get a US federal judge to prevent them from collecting on what was to become a $9.5 billion judgment.
Now, the thing about this RICO case in New York was the judge was incredibly biased against Ecuadorians. He recommended the RICO suit himself, he referred it to his own court, and he refused to allow the contamination to even be brought up as evidence in the case. So he gave Chevron everything it wanted and he ruled for them, and then that was appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Second Circuit inexplicably held up the decision, and part of the reason, we believe, is because Judge Kaplan, the first federal judge, wrote a 500-page verdict, and threw in so much of basically Chevron's story, that the higher court didn't feel able to go through the tome that he had written to look at the facts in that case and rule specifically on the law, and allowed it to be upheld.
And the irony is that the law, RICO, being used this way has many problems that the Supreme Court needs to consider, not the least of which is it was used to intimidate organizations and individuals to suppress their free speech rights. Amazon Watch, for example, was hit with subpoenas to get every document for over a decade of campaigning related to Chevron, and it was simply meant to try to bog us down, to scare us, and to make us have to find lawyers and defend ourselves in court.
Now, we defeated their subpoenas soundly in federal court in San Francisco before a different judge, who recognized this as nothing more than an attempt to go after our free speech rights, and threw out every request that Chevron had. But in New York, under Judge Kaplan, those types of requests were affirmed.
And that's the danger if this case is not overturned. Because RICO could be used by other corporations, as it is against environmental groups like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network currently, to prevent people from waging these types of campaigns, simply for fear of legal action, without having actually done anything wrong, other than publicizing information about environmental crimes committed by corporations.
Now, that was the first part of it. The second part, which is incredibly important as well, is that the case that Chevron brought was based on the testimony of a corrupt judge, who said that he was given a bribe by the Ecuadorians to ghostwrite a verdict in Ecuador, this $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron. Now, since that court found in favor of Chevron, that judge has gone before another tribunal and admitted that he lied about the bribe, and forensic evidence from the government of Ecuador has actually proved that the judgment was not ghostwritten, and it was actually prepared by the appropriate judge, and no external devices were held to it.
So the Supreme Court in our brief is asked to consider that new evidence, which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals did not, and therefore overturn this decision, one, because the law is used to intimidate groups and, two, because the facts of the case prove that Chevron was just fabricating a lie to get out of paying for a cleanup.
JJ: You talked about how the actual facts of the pollution were not allowed into consideration. And we're talking about, as I've heard you say, a Manhattan-sized area of toxic waste in the Amazon. And it wasn't an accident, it was an entirely predictable result of cost-cutting measures that Texaco and later Chevron took.
JJ: But to call attention to that, as you've said, just to call attention to that, this legal action named journalists, named bloggers, along with environmental groups as “non-party co-conspirators.” This, of course, goes directly to our First Amendment rights, I should think, and one hopes the Court will see that.
PPM: Yeah, that's exactly right. And it stems even farther into the future of covering this case. For example, Amazon Watch was given leaked videos from a whistleblower within Chevron, and they show Chevron conducting tests at well sites in Ecuador prior to the court doing it, and finding contamination at the very sites that they swore they cleaned up. In fact, you can see them on tape going, “Great, I give you one job, don't find any petroleum, and you can't even do that right.” You know, they're joking about the fact that they’re finding contamination.
Now, those videos were verified as authentic by Chevron's lawyers. And when we tried to get national news coverage about them, I had reporters telling me, off the record, we cannot cover your story, there is a smear campaign against you, Chevron's lawyers are using this RICO decision to suppress coverage of this case, saying that a judge has ruled it's a fraud, you can't cover this story and you can't trust Amazon Watch.
And that's how deep this goes, and they've actually gone after reporters who tried to tell that story and tried to smear them. And they've hired PR firms to go after them directly. I mean, there's no boundaries to the things that they've tried to do, unfortunately. And this Supreme Court brief goes through a lot of those specifics, but it doesn't even really touch the tip of the iceberg of what Chevron has tried to do.
And it's such a dangerous precedent, because other corporations have looked at this case already. And the Americans for Tort Reform, a pro-corporate group, famously said Chevron has written a “new playbook to go after corporate gadflies,” was the term that they used. This is the way to shut down corporate accountability groups, environmental groups, human rights groups, and to silence them.
JJ: Let me just say, finally, in the list of groups that are signing on to these two amicus briefs, I see Justice in Nigeria Now, which just underscores these corporations are global, but activism is also global. It it has to be, doesn't it, in the force of these transnational corporations?
PPM: Yes. This case in the United States, while it's a terrible precedent for corporate accountability, it actually doesn't offer Chevron any legal remedy to get out of its responsibility in Ecuador, because the Ecuadorians are enforcing their verdict right now in Canada, where Chevron has $15 billion worth of assets. And they feel that they have a strong case, they've so far had rulings unanimously in their favor by the Supreme Court of Canada, and I believe that they're going to be successful eventually in getting justice there. But what it says is the United States, the place that's supposed to be the bastion of justice and have an impartial justice system, is actually coming out incredibly pro-corporate, and is telling the world this is not the place you can go even to bring our own corporations to account.
JJ: We've been speaking with Paul Paz y Miño of Amazon Watch. You can follow this case along with other work on their site, AmazonWatch.org. Paul Paz y Miño, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
PPM: Thank you.