It has been 15 years since a group of Ecuadorian indigenous people filed a lawsuit against Texaco for oil contamination, resulting from 26 years of substandard oil extraction efforts. In those years, Texaco — acquired by Chevron in 2001 — consistently has denied responsibility, delayed justice, and defamed the Ecuadorian people who need help the most. In other words, the oil giant has acted like most people expect Big Oil companies to act — like bullies — instead of the good corporate citizens that Chevron’s advertising campaigns like to portray.
Meanwhile, the Ecuadorians living in Texaco’s former dumping ground suffer every day. Texaco released over 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic water into the rainforest from 1964 to 1990. Experts indicate that over 1,000 people have died from cancer. Spontaneous abortions are two to three times more likely to occur in the concession area than in other parts of Ecuador. It’s almost impossible to find a family not touched by the illnesses.
Until you see the extent of the contamination, it is hard to believe. Almost 1,000 pits the size of large swimming pools scar an area the size of Rhode Island. Texaco built the pits to dump the remaining oil and toxic water after drilling. To reduce costs, Texaco violated standard industry practice and never lined the pits. As a result, the toxins have flowed directly into the streams and underground water supply. Texaco eventually covered the pits with dirt — as if hiding the pollution would make it go away — but never took any real steps to clean up the area. Some people even built their houses on top of the covered pits, thinking that the pits were safe.
Chevron has done almost nothing to help people or restore clean drinking water. The company has never conducted a single health impact study, probably because the corporation doesn’t want to create any evidence of its wrongdoing. You can view photos of some of the families here and more photos of the contamination here.
Chevron has denied responsibility with misleading statements and arguments that insult the intelligence. For example:
- The soil in Ecuador is naturally toxic. (This claim despite the incredibly rich ecological diversity native to the rainforest.)
- The people in Ecuador are sick because they have poor personal hygiene. (This argument, replete with imperialist and racist undertones, is simply factually incorrect.)
- Fecal coliform bacteria in the water gave the Ecuadorians cancer. (This argument ignores the absolute fact that coliforms do not cause cancer.)
- Oil is good for you, so don’t worry about it being in the water. (This claim despite the numerous chemicals in oil that are known to cause human health problems, including benzyne, a known carcinogen.)
Each of these statements can be sourced directly to Texaco or Chevron.
In the courtroom, Chevron’s main line of defense has not been much better:
- An agreement with the government of Ecuador released Texaco from liability.
- Texaco cleaned up the contamination.
- The government-run oil company, Petroecuador, is the real polluter.
What Chevron fails to mention is that the agreement released only the government of Ecuador and specifically states that it does not release third-party claims (like those of the indigenous plaintiffs). They also fail to mention that cleaning up the contamination requires more than just pouring dirt into only 16 percent of the nearly 1,000 oil pits. Petroecuador didn’t start operating the oil fields until 1992, a year before the lawsuit was filed. While Petroecuador was part owner, Texaco operated the oil sites until the day it evacuated the country, leaving behind its antiquated and shoddy production system for Petroecuador and the Texaco-trained Ecuadorians to use.
Recently, for the first time ever, an elected American official traveled to Ecuador to view the contamination left by the American oil company. Congressman Jim McGovern, chair of the House Human Rights Caucus, was shocked by what he saw. On the House floor, he said:
“I saw firsthand the terrible human and environmental costs that have resulted from the decades-long failure to properly clean the contamination left by oil drilling and production. Specifically, the sites I visited were those that were under the control of Texaco, now Chevron … The drinking water for thousands of poor people is horribly unfit — even deadly. Children are drinking and bathing in water that reeks of oil. In one village, San Carlos, I couldn’t come across a family that hasn’t been touched by cancer. Mothers brought their children to show me the terrible rashes and sores that covered their bodies.
“As an American citizen, the degradation and contamination left behind in a poor part of the world by this U.S. company made me angry and ashamed.”
It’s hard for anyone not to be angry and ashamed when they see firsthand what’s been done to the rainforest and the people. Perhaps that’s why Chevron’s CEO David O’Reilly and other top Chevron executives have never traveled to Ecuador to see their company’s legacy. They would rather turn a blind eye — to see it is to face an enormous responsibility.