Poisoning the Amazon

Article 8 Jan 2007 admin

Cancer, birth defects and skin diseases affect 30 000 rainforest residents in Ecuador, Joseph Mutti investigates – This article was first published in Platform’s Carbon Web Newsletter, Issue 6.

It’s the smell that hits you first as you approach a pit the size of a football field filled with a choking sludge of oil and dead animals. In the humid heat of Ecuador’s Amazon jungle, the toxic fumes are overwhelming as you thrust your hand into your pocket in search of a handkerchief. The pit – an aberration deep in the pristine forest that surrounds it – is one of an estimated 1000 of varying dimensions that cover an area larger than Portugal. Children here suffer from leukemia at four times the national average. Birth defects and miscarriages soar, as carcinogens contaminate drinking and bathing water for thousands of kilometers.

The unhindered oil pollution in Ecuador’s rainforest began in 1964 and lasted for almost three decades. When Texaco walked out of the country pocketing a $30 billion profit, it left a toxic legacy for 30 000 rainforest dwellers. From 1964 until 1992, the US corporation had dumped in excess of 18.5 billion gallons of toxic ‘produced water’ into open, unlined pits, as well as directly into the swamps, streams and rivers that make up the rainforest of north-eastern Ecuador.

Produced water – a byproduct of drilling – contains some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals, including benzene, toluene, and Policyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). The result has been what environmental experts consider the worst case of oil pollution on the planet and, after Chernobyl, possibly the worst environmental catastrophe in human history.

Texaco chose not to use standard oil industry practice of firing toxic waste into a bored well cavity next to the primary well hole, an operation called re-injection. It thus saved itself between $1.5 and $4.5 billion in operation expenses in a conscious decision to choose profit over the lives of the local population. Texaco’s home state of Texas has laws requiring re-injection that date back to 1919.

In 2002, Chevron took over Texaco and inherited its Ecuadorian devastation, but the company failed to live up to CEO Dave O’Reilly’s promise to “develop affordable, reliable energy supplies in a safe, environmentally responsible way” or to Chevron’s website claim to “conduct our business in a socially responsible and ethical manner”. Five indigenous groups, under the aegis of the Ecuadorian NGO Amazon Defense Coalition, filed a class-action lawsuit against the oil giant in 2003, claiming damages of $6 billion, estimated as the very minimum necessary to clean up up the devastation. Many legal experts believe the indigenous groups will prevail, especially with the recent victory for Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, who has shown himself to be very sympathetic to the cause.

Chevron does not deny that Texaco dumped toxic waste into the rainforest, but defends its position by maintaining that the Ecuadorian government released it from further clean-up operations after a fraudulent remediation program that did nothing to offset the damage.

One of the attorneys on the joint Ecuadorian-US legal team is New York-based Steve Donziger. He says that the remediation work was more “a cover up than a clean up, they just took dirt and ran it over the pits without cleaning them out. You cannot live over a toxic waste pit without being exposed to carcinogens.”

Independent environmental engineering consultancy, E-Tech International, says that Chevron’s waste management practices in the Amazon would never have been permitted in the US. Environmental law would classify such conditions as not fit for human habitation. San Carlos, a village in the worst affected area, has reported 27 cancer deaths out of only 500 residents since Texaco began operations. The village has been nick-named “the cancer zone” by local people.

Donziger argues that Chevron “masquerades in the US as the environmental oil corporation that respects the law, supports universal human rights, protects the environment, and benefits the communities where it works,” while in reality its actions “amounts to no less than chemical warfare and genocide.” The case is now in its final stages with attorneys expecting a court decision by the end of 2007, despite delaying tactics by Chevron.

Joseph Mutti works in the press office of the Amazon Defense Coalition.
For more information:

In October, PLATFORM’s Greg Muttitt was a member of a People’s Tribunal on ChrevonTexaco’s damage to the Amazon, which made a moral judgement on the legal case.

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