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Ecuadorian tribes suing Chevron over environmental disaster

by Mike Gaworecki

May 5, 2009

From where I’m sitting – my desk in San Francisco – global warming is by far the biggest threat posed by our continued reliance on fossil fuels. But for many communities around the world, global warming would probably not be listed as the most pressing concern. Grave as the climate crisis may be, the pollution caused by the mining, transporting, refining, and/or burning of fossil fuels is by far the dominant concern in these communities, which skew heavily to poor, disadvantaged, and minority communities – those who will be hit hardest by global warming all the same.

For instance, tribal people in the Ecuadorian Amazon have been dealing with the fallout from what’s been described as “the largest environmental disaster of this new century” for over 4 decades now. Between 1964 and 1990, oil and gas giant Texaco dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into Amazon waterways and 916 waste pits, many of which overflow into streams. Hundreds of square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been polluted.

Texaco was bought by Chevron in 2001. Thus Chevron has inherited the mess Texaco made in the Amazon. Several of the tribes who rely on the Amazon for their livelihood brought a suit against Chevron in 1993, seeking redress for their polluted watercourses and the abnormally high cancer rates they’ve experienced, in addition to other health problems.

Chevron has tried everything to quash this suit. In 2003 they asked that the trial be moved to Ecuador, where they no doubt figured they could buy their way out of a guilty verdict. They lobbied the Bush Administration to threaten Ecuador with cutting off trade relations if the trial proceeded unfavorably for the American corporation. Amazon Watch recently caught Chevron paying off bloggers to attack the Ecuadorian courts on the company’s behalf. Chevron even went so far as to produce a fake online newscast, complete with a former CNN news correspondent, as part of a coordinated disinformation campaign.

But some times facts have a habit of being irrepressible and immutable, no matter how much PR money a company spends to bury or rewrite them. 60 Minutes did an exposé last Sunday, May 3rd about the fact that "Powering American cars with Amazon crude has left a toxic legacy”:

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The Ecuadorian tribes are seeking $27 billion in damages. Of course Chevron will appeal endlessly and delay paying this money as long as they can, taking a page from Exxon’s playbook in dealing with the Valdez spill (which, by the way, was around 10.8 million gallons, far smaller than the 18 billion gallons alleged to have been spilled in Ecuador’s rainforest). But still, a ruling against the company would set a powerful precedent for fossil fuels companies being held accountable for their actions. It would be a huge victory not just for the tribal people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, but for the communites around the globe that are being poisoned and oppressed by the inordinate amount of money and power we’ve handed to unscrupled companies like Chevron because of our dependence on fossil fuels.

It’s not just developing countries where this type of thing happens. Right here in the Bay Area there are environmental justice groups battling a Chevron oil refinery expansion, which will result in more pollution in their community. And it’s not just oil companies. People in West Virginia and other Appalacian communities have seen their homes and local ecosystems destroyed by mountaintop removal, the supremely destructive coal-mining practice. New Mexicans in the Four Corners region of the state recently got some good news when the EPA canceled the permit for a new coal plant that was to be built there, but they still have to deal with the pollution from two others.

Of course there are countless other examples all over the world of people fighting for their lives and livelihoods against environmental injustice. Whether you live in one of these exploited communities or not, you have a stake in the outcome of this trial in Ecuador. We need to break our addiction to fossil fuels and build a sustainable energy economy to avert the worst affects of global warming. But unless everyone benefits from the clean energy future, there is no true sustainability. And for everyone to benefit from clean energy, we have to clean up the mess leftover from all these years of using dirty energy.

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