By Dick Clapp

A critically important verdict with far-reaching implications is soon to be rendered in an Ecuadorian Court.  The court case involves the rights of 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians to compensation from the Chevron oil company for destruction of their land and for devastating ecological and public health consequences throughout the Amazon region in Eastern Ecuador.  The history of the lawsuit began in 1964 when Texaco, now owned by Chevron, began extracting oil using methods that are particularly damaging to the environment and continued this practice for decades.  The oil extraction involved drilling and raising “production water” along with oil, which was literally drained into streams and lagoons throughout an area the size of Rhode Island.  This spread hydrocarbon and metal contamination so widely that one technical observer for the plaintiffs said, “If this were the U.S., the area would be considered unfit for human habitation and would be fenced off until it could be remediated.”

I visited some of the contaminated areas in November, as part of a Congressional delegation led by Jim McGovern (D-MA).  I was invited by attorneys for the plaintiffs to see the extent of the contamination and review the health information that has been collected so far. Although I had read studies on the health of residents living near oil fields in Ecuador’s Amazon basin, I still wasn’t prepared for the devastation we witnessed.

We toured working and abandoned oil well sites, waste lagoons and the homes of Ecuadorians who lived literally next door to some of these sites.  We met people who had skin rashes on their arms and legs, had been diagnosed with cancer, or had children with birth defects all of whom were exposed to the oil extraction wastes. 

Some of the waste sites were being slowly remediated by employees of the Ecuadorian state oil company, to which Chevron asserts it has transferred responsibility for the clean-up.  One of the waste lagoons that was tested by Chevron and by plaintiffs’ experts as background for the Court.  It was called “cleaned up” by Chevron and their testing reported the total petroleum hydrocarbon levels as “non-detect.” It was grossly polluted, and Congressman McGovern questioned how Chevron could say it was clean.  The answer seems to be that they took samples at the periphery of the site, not where the waste was.  He committed himself to trying to get U.S. agencies to “get a plan to help fix this awful situation … This is a humanitarian and environmental crisis.”

The struggle to bring this ecological and human health devastation to international attention has been led by two courageous Ecuadorians, Pablo Fajardo and Luiz Yanza. These two participated in the tour we took in November and accompanied us to an indigenous community where we heard further stories about cultural destruction wrought by U.S. oil company activities. They are both from the Ecuadorian Amazon region and were jointly awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in April, 2008 in recognition of their work. (You can watch a video about them at the Goldman Prize website.) Pablo is a lawyer who has become the public representative of the 30,000 plaintiffs, at great personal risk to himself and his family.  Luiz is a co-founder of the Amazon Defense Front and together with teams of U.S.-based lawyers they have waged a campaign to get compensation for cleaning up the oil waste, remediation of water bodies in the region and monitoring the health of the indigenous people.  Chevron has said it is no longer responsible for any of these things, and that their prior clean-up work was sufficient.

The long-term consequences of the Court decision, expected in early 2009, are a potential $27 billion dollar remediation effort to reverse the ecological damage in the Amazon region, and strengthening of Ecuadorian environmental protection laws.  The results of the campaign and legal verdict in Ecuador also have implications for damaging oil extraction practices in other countries, and ultimately on the search for alternative ways of producing energy that do not destroy the planet.  We need to watch for the outcome of this court case and make sure the lessons are not lost on present policy-makers and architects of future energy options.

Dick Clapp is Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, and Adjunct Professor at U. of Mass. – Lowell in the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.  He is a former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and served as Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980-1989.  He has worked in two environmental health consulting groups in addition to his teaching and research activities, and he traveled to Ecuador under the auspices of Stratus Consulting Co., from Boulder, CO.