Posted by: JohnnyRook | January 1, 2009

Toxic Spills: Ecuador’s Example for Tennessee on Making the Polluters Pay

“The Amazon gives the breath of life to humanity.”. “That’s why this is the trial of the world.”

Ecuadoran Superior Court Judge Juan Nunez

On this site we have often talked about the health and environmental costs of mining, drilling for, and consuming fossil fuels. Whether it be the blowing up of mountaintops in West Virginia and Kentucky, the irresponsible and poorly regulated destruction involved in the mining of tar sands in Alberta or leakage from unregulated and negligently maintained fly-ash storage ponds in Tennessee, we are surrounded by examples of businesses run by men and women (but mostly men) who have been taught that their only responsibility is to maximize shareholder profits (for the doing of which they are allowed to award themselves bonuses equal to the GDP of some countries). Why were they taught this? And why do we accept it as normal?

Corporations and Morality

The idea that corporations are exempt from conventional morality is an odd one, one that we accept, I believe, largely out of inertia., because when one analyzes it, it makes no sense. Why should the most powerful among us have as their single standard of morality that they must satisfy their greed? Moral rules ought to be drilled relentlessly into the minds of people who work in corporations. Instead most of them are taught that pursuing one’s self-interest should be their only guiding principle.

It was a mistake to ever grant personal legal status to corporations and one of the first things that I would do if I had the power would be to abolish corporations as presently constituted. Large corporations such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Southern Company, ADM, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, etc. simply have too much wealth and hence too many possibilities to corrupt government and manipulate and deceive the citizenry (consumers, not citizens, is what the corporations call us) about their actions and policies. They and the people who run them ought to be more closely regulated and scrutinized and held to account then any other entities in society.

In reality we spend far more money and time monitoring the actions of drug peddlers than we do these multi-billion dollar businesses who poison our water, soil and air, giving untold numbers of us cancer and other horrible illnesses. And that doesn’t even include their greenhouse gas emissions, which, via global warming threaten our civilization and ecosystems planet wide.

It ought to be a basic regulatory principle that the richer and more powerful an entity to be regulated is, the stricter, more vigorous and more transparent the regulatory and oversight process ought to be. Why? One of the reasons that the war against drugs fails is because drug lords have so much money that they can corrupt the police, the judges, and the bureaucrats charged with eliminating them.

Oil, coal and gas companies do the same, yet we are more concerned about regulating illegal immigration than illegal manufacturing, natural resource exploitatin, farming or finance. Think of large scale-businesses as being on a moral continuum with the worlds assorted mafia’s at one extreme and the world’s huge corporations only a step or two closer to the center, but still far out on the immoral edge.

The only thing that distinguishes many corporations from mafias is that mafias engage in activities that are considered wrong in and of themselves. Large corporations engage in what society generally sees as legitimate activities, but then use the same sort of immoral tactics as mafias to enhance their power and influence. Because corporations are engaged in what are generally seen as more legitimate enterprises, they hire more lobbyists than hit men, but their goals are the same as any drug mafia: to accumulate as much wealth as possible and to intimidate or corrupt any opposition to their activities. One of the principle differences between mafias and many large corporations is the people who run mafias know they are criminals while the people who run corporations tell themselves that they are society’s benefactors without whom the rest of us would be living in caves. But they both bribe congressmen.

The Case of Nueva Loja, Ecuador

As I wrote above, anyone who follows the news knows that there was a huge, poisonous, coal-sludge spill in Tennessee in the last few days. Fewer people know about how mountain-top removal violates people’s rights and threaten their lives or how mining for oil in Alberta’s tar sands makes a major contribution to Climaticide, destroys forests and wildlife and threatens rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Even fewer people know about the human and environmental catastrophe that Texaco (now part of Chevron) caused in Ecuador or about how the corporate world might be rocked if a court decision there is decided in the plaintiffs’ favor. Ecuador, probably because of it’s long victimization by large corporations, recently adopted a new constitution that grants legal standing to the environment.

Now Bloomberg is reporting in an excellent, long and detailed article, that I cannot recommend too highly, that Chevron may be fined up to 27 billion dollars if it loses a lawsuit filed by victims of Texaco’s (Chevron now owns Texaco–just part of the process by which large, powerful uncontrollable corporations become larger, more powerful and more uncontrollable) decades-long, ruthless exploitation of Ecuadoran oil fields without regard for the people or the environment.

Bolivar Cevallos walks around the farm where his family once lived amid the oil fields of Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest. His boots sink ankle deep in tar. Everywhere he steps, oily muck seeps from the ground.

A gasolinelike smell hangs in the sweltering jungle air. The mess is a remnant of oil drilling in a 120-mile-long swath of the tropical jungle in northeastern Ecuador where Texaco Inc. and Ecuador’s state-run oil company, PetroEcuador, have pumped billions of barrels of crude from the ground during the past 40 years.

Cevallos, 51, whose face is tanned and creased from a life working in the tropical sun, plunges a shovel into a ditch. Grease oozes out and drains into a river his family used for drinking and bathing for more than 25 years.

About 230,000 people live in Ecuador’s northeastern rain forest side by side with oil wells and pools of drilling waste. Cevallos is no longer one of them.

Four years ago, a doctor diagnosed his daughter, Diana, with histiocytosis X, a rare blood disease that caused tumors that punched holes in her skull.

“The doctor told us to get out because the pollution would make her sicker, maybe kill her,” says Cevallos, who used to tend patches of cacao on his farm and now works as a laborer on a construction site for $6 a day. His daughter, now 5, is thin and still ailing.

Map of Ecuador. Nueva Loja in the NE is where Judge Juan Nuñez will decide the case.

The story continues:

The ruined land around Cevallos’s home is part of one of the worst environmental and human health disasters in the Amazon basin, which stretches across nine countries and, at 1.9 billion acres (800 million hectares), is about the size of Australia.

And depending on how an Ecuadorean judge rules in a lawsuit over the pollution, it may become the costliest corporate ecological catastrophe in world history.

If the judge follows the recommendation of a court- appointed panel of experts, he could order Chevron Corp., which now owns Texaco, to pay as much as $27 billion in damages.

The case, which has languished for 15 years in U.S. and Ecuadorean courts, highlights the growing human and environmental toll of the global quest for oil.

Another problem in trying to regulate powerful corporations is that they have the resources to draw out for years any legal challenge to their crimes. Often their opponents do not have the resources to continue the fight and give up. In this case, the plaintiffs have the advantage of having support from the Ecuadoran government.

Now alow me to present you with some quotes from Chevron spokespeople in the company’s defense. I have provided context for the quote when I thought it necessary. I recommend very strongly that you read the entire article. [All emphases in the quotes below are mine–JR]

Chevron says Texaco had completely cleaned up its mess by 1998. PetroEcuador, which took over Texaco’s operations in 1990 — and not Texaco — is to blame for today’s pollution, Chevron says.

[Silvia Garrigo, Chevron’s lead in-house attorney in the case.] says residents have wrongly accused Texaco of contaminating the environment and that there’s no credible evidence linking diseases to Texaco’s work.

They have been told so many times that it’s Texaco, so everything that goes wrong in their lives, if their cow dies, it’s Texaco,” Garrigo, 47, says. “If their wife has diabetes, it’s Texaco.”

Health problems among residents of the Amazon are linked to poor sanitation and poverty, and residents of the oil region are pawns of activists and greedy attorneys, Garrigo says.

“You have people that are very needy,” she says. “They will lie. ‘My baby will have medical care, my son will get a job, if I testify.’”

Garrigo, Chevron’s lawyer, says the controller’s audit is a sham. It’s part of an Ecuadorean government campaign to concoct a case against the company and help the jungle residents and their lawyers reap billions of dollars of damages, she says.

“We have independent scientific analysis that refutes those findings,” Garrigo says.

Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson says there’s no scientific evidence linking Diana’s disease to crude oil.

Ana [a young girl who died of leukemia] probably came down with the deadly disease because of the oil pollution around her home, [Dr. Juan Sghirla, a hematologist at the Red Cross Hospital in Quito] says. Ana, whose family settled the farm before she was born, grew up about 100 yards from an oil well and drank from a shallow water well that lay underneath rusty crude-oil pipelines.

A team from the general controller’s office that took soil tests at a well near Ana’s home found hydrocarbon contamination 5,716 times normal levels, the 2003 audit says.

Once, when neighbors tried to dig a water well a few feet away, they struck a layer of tar, says Suquisupa, 50, who makes a living tending a patch of cacao and coffee on her farm. Ana’s family isn’t among those who sued Chevron.

Chevron spokesman Robertson says soil and water tests found no chemicals known to cause leukemia.

Chevron’s Robertson says the chemicals pose little or no threat to health. Ecuador’s Amazon gets an average of 120 inches of rain a year, and Texaco’s pits sometimes overflowed, polluting streams, according to the 2003 general controller’s audit.

In 2007, Judge Germn Yanez, the case’s third judge, appointed Richard Cabrera, a geological engineer in Quito with 20 years of experience, to evaluate the pollution data, assess the effects of contamination on people and the environment and recommend a cleanup plan.

Cabrera had specialized in environmental studies for mining and oil companies in Ecuador, and he put together a team of scientists, doctors and biologists.

In April 2008, Cabrera’s team concluded that Texaco’s mishandling of waste until 1990 was the main cause of the pollution. It proposed a cleanup of 916 pits and underground aquifers. The report pegged total damages at $16 billion.

The team reviewed studies by San Sebastian, the Spanish doctor, and a group of government health workers. It found that cancer rates were above those of areas of Ecuador without oil operations. Its revised report, which used studies by the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. court cases to gauge costs, increased the damage estimate to $27 billion.

Chevron says the expert panel’s findings aren’t supported by the evidence. The company hired doctors, epidemiologists and other experts who refute the report.

Have you noticed how many of these statements are similar to the lies and disinformation offered up by TVA after the Kingston spill? Particularly, the part about toxic substances not being toxic. You would think that all these companies were running organic farms or manufacturing paper cranes to hear them talk.

The Chevron case is the most important environmental litigation on the planet, says Mike Brune, executive director of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, which lobbies companies to improve their practices.

“When the verdict comes in, it will force environmental ethics to go global,” he says.

It might be worth remembering all this the next time you see a Chevron ad about clean energy.

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Responses

  1. Will Chevron stop that nonsense and take responsibility for what it did?! Over 1,000 people have died from cancer and thousands more are sick with skin disease and respiratory illness. Their lives were destroyed because of oil contamination. Denying, downplaying and hiding the truth- that’s all Chevron can do. If you want to find out more, read this blog, http://www.thechevronpit.blogspot.com


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