As part of a last-ditch effort to delay a final decision in the world’s largest environmental trial, additional soil testing demanded by Chevron backfired Tuesday when waste pits in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle that the company claimed to have “cleaned” a decade ago revealed large amounts of oil clearly visible to the naked eye.
The final series of tests of Chevron oil production sites, scheduled to be completed by the end of March, will clear the way for a court decision on a $27 billion damages claim against the company, said Julio Prieto, a lawyer for the 30,000 Amazon residents who have sued the oil giant over what experts believe is the worst oil-related contamination on the planet.
In what has become a common delay tactic in the epic 15-year legal battle, Chevron lawyer Adolfo Callejas had demanded for months that he be allowed to take soil samples at eight additional oil production sites even though the evidentiary phase of the case had been all but completed two years ago. The court scheduled the tests for Tuesday, but Callejas requested a postponement of the very tests he had called for just minutes before they were to be conducted even though court officials and technical experts had traveled under armed guard for hours to reach the sites deep in the jungle.
The court denied the motion and ordered the tests to proceed at well sites Auca 17 and 19, leading to a dramatic and embarrassing moment for Chevron.
With Callejas and several colleagues watching, a court-appointed technical expert, Marcelo Munoz, lifted soil samples from waste pits that Texaco reportedly had “remediated”. Oil sludge was clearly visible to the naked eye in waste pits that Texaco had certified to Ecuador’s government as “cleaned” in the mid 1990s.
Since 2004, the court has inspected 94 former Chevron oil production facilities in the rainforest and found extensive toxic contamination at 100% of the sites, according to a 4,000-page report by a court-appointed expert and a team of 14 independent scientists released last year. That report found the oil giant could be liable for up to $27 billion in damages for creating what experts believe is the worst oil-related catastrophe on the planet, covering an area the size of Rhode Island.
The lawsuit seeks damages for the dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into Amazon waterways and the clean-up of 916 waste pits gouged out of the jungle floor. The pollution occurred between 1964 to 1992, when Texaco operated a large oil concession in the area, but the expert found it is still leaching toxins into soils and groundwater in an area where tens of thousands of people live.
Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and will bear any liability in the case, which was initially filed in 1993 in federal court in New York.
“The inspections today were a double defeat for Chevron,” said Prieto. “Chevron’s attempt to delay backfired and we now have even more evidence of how Texaco polluted the rainforest.”
Chevron consistently has tried to use the inspections as a ploy to delay the trial proceedings. When it appeared several weeks ago that the judge might rule on the damages claim, Chevron’s lawyers rushed to schedule the eight inspections. Once they were scheduled, Chevron’s lawyers tried several times to postpone them, including the attempt yesterday by Callejas.
Chevron had initially requested the eight inspections in 2003 and was holding them in reserve to delay any court decision on the damages claim, said Prieto. The plaintiffs believe the eight inspections are producing redundant evidence and violate their due process rights, he added.
The trial in Ecuador began in 2003 after a U.S. federal judge in New York, Jed Rakoff, granted a request from Chevron that the case be transferred to the South American country because the courts there were fair and a more adequate forum. When evidence in the Ecuador trial started to point to Chevron’s culpability, the company began to attack the very courts that it previously praised and promised the indigenous groups they would face a “lifetime of litigation,” in the words of Chevron General Counsel Charles James.
Chevron also has refused to pay $64,000 in Ecuador court costs for “blind” soil samples it had requested. Chevron realizes the “blind” samples corroborate the presence of high levels of toxins in the soil as determined by the court expert and thinks it can get them suppressed by not paying for them, said Pablo Fajardo, another lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Once the inspections are completed at the end of March, the judge will be in a position to rule on the case later in the year, said Fajardo.
The Amazon Defense Coalition represents dozens of rainforest communities and five indigenous groups that inhabit Ecuador’s Northern Amazon region. The mission of the Coalition is to protect the environment and secure social justice through grass roots organizing, political advocacy, and litigation.