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Monday, 07 December 2009 05:08

In 'Crude' Exploitation of Ecuador's Amazon, Chevron-Texaco Leaves a Toxic, Deadly Legacy

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by Meg White

In the award-winning documentary Crude, the rainbow plumes of oil spreading into pristine streams are unmistakable. The fiery landscapes might remind you of sabotaged Kuwaiti oil fields, but the surrounding forest tells you you're looking at the Amazon. And still, the driver of the truck spreading oil waste on dirt roads as if it were salt on an icy sidewalk remains faceless.

The thing about Joe Berlinger's latest movie is that you never know who the bad guy is. But there's never a moment when you're unsure of the identity of the victims.

The film opens with an indigenous woman saying in her language, "Since the company arrived, we are ashamed to wear our traditional clothing. Most of our women no longer sing, but I will sing for you."

Crude tells the story of a lawsuit filed by 30,000 Ecuadorians against Texaco in 1993. The plaintiffs include members of the indigenous communities of Secoya, Siona, Cofán, Huaorani, Quichua, as well as colonial settlers. Chevron inherited the burden in 2001 after a merger with Texaco. The outcome of the trial is still up in the air.

What is certain is that people are suffering.

The film crew visits a health center in the Amazonian town of San Carlos, identified as having been one of the most polluted by oil extraction in the area. Rosa Moreno, a nurse at the center, examines a newborn covered from head to tiny toe with a red, bumpy rash. She tells the mother to boil toxins out of the water before bathing her child from then on. Moreno tells the film crew that 15 to 16 out of 20 babies she sees at the center are similarly afflicted.

Others are born with serious birth defects. Some children die from drinking oil-polluted waters. Those who live to the age of consent are likely to greet adulthood with cancer, 18 being the most common age for a local to be diagnosed with a tumor.

In some ways, this fallout should come as no surprise. Amazon Watch, a nonprofit that has aligned with the plaintiffs, estimates that 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and 17 million gallons of crude oil have been dumped over 1,700 miles of Ecuadorian rainforest as a consequence of oil exploration there.

The pollution exceeded the famous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska by millions of gallons. Part of the reason for the astronomical difference in waste levels is the fact that Exxon Valdez was a mistake. What happened in Ecuador was a part of standard operating procedure.

Texaco set up an irresponsible and illegal system to direct spills and waste into the water system, which is crucial for all life in a rainforest ecosystem. In an on-site judicial inspection of the pollution in the town of Cofán, a lead lawyer for Chevron-Texaco basically told the judge that the only people the victims had to blame were themselves.

"This is industrial exploitation permitted by law. This is not contamination," he told the judge in Spanish. "This is, by legal and logical definition, an Ecuadorian oil industry area. People shouldn't be living here."

The film estimates that some 15,000 people lived in area before it was opened to oil exploration, and that fewer than 100 live there now.

Texaco built hundreds of open-air pits near oil wells in which to dump drilling mud, production oil and other waste created in the process of drilling a well. Those pits still there today, each with a gooseneck-shaped pipe to allow water to drain off into nearby streams during heavy rains, while keeping the refuse contained.

The problem with that idea is that even if the waste were secure, the water itself is contaminated, and those contaminants accumulate in streams and large rivers alike, flowing past local communities on their way to the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore, there is little to nothing stopping the waste itself from seeping from the pits into the soil and groundwater.

The hot potato of guilt is also passed on to the Ecuadorian government, which took over oil drilling leases when Texaco left the country in 1992, after nearly four decades of pumping oil out of the Amazon. Unsurprisingly, the state-run Petroecuador did not have any qualms about continuing the standard operating procedure installed by Texaco.

Perhaps because of the medium of the pollution, the comparison for this story is almost always with Exxon Mobil. There are similarities to be sure, but Chevron-Texaco tellingly follows a similar technique to that employed by Dow/Union Carbide in the wake of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. In both cases, companies paid off the government to secure a document releasing the them from responsibility. Then, the offending company is acquired by another company, putting another layer of public relations protection between them and the disaster. Also, in both cases the local government acted irresponsibly and added to the pollution, further obscuring blame.

Finally, both companies are still using the courts to evade responsibility. For its part, Chevron-Texaco keeps moving the case from the U.S. to Ecuador and back, depending upon which nation's  government is more business-friendly at any given moment.

When the leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa visited one of the affected sites (notably one untouched by Petroecuador), he made specific mention of the estimate that Texaco caused 30 times more damage than the Exxon Valdez.

"The world needs to know about this," Correa said in Spanish. "But the Exxon Valdez was in the United States, so this doesn't matter."

Those supporting the lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco allow that Petroecuador has a fair share of blame in this story, but they insist that such an accounting belongs in a different court proceeding, and that the oil company that started the pattern of abuse needs to pay their fair share first.

Yet, the film's notion of "good guys" isn't so cut-and-dry either. The law firm that has been subsidizing the suit, Kohn, Swift & Graf, is in it because the case is potentially "lucrative," though they also insist they are on the right side of the the law. The Chevron-Texaco lawyer featured in the movie charges that these New Yorkers are just scamming native Ecuadorians for a profit and some positive press.

The plaintiff's lawyers do stand to get a cut of the winnings, but if Exxon Valdez is any indication, there will be an intense whittling process when it comes to damages. Although a court-appointed expert has estimated that the Chevron-Texaco is responsible for $27 billion in damages, the film ends with outside experts on the case predicting at least another decade of litigation before finalization.

On the public relations front, however, things become murkier. The lead U.S. lawyer representing the plaintiffs appears at one point of the film coaching musician Sting's wife Trudie Styler to "try to mention the word 'Texaco' as much as possible" when speaking to the press. Also, an effort to bring attention to the case in the U.S. devolves into the forced creation of a cult of personality surrounding the young Ecuadorian lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

Therein lies the strength of Crude: The film unflinchingly examines everyone in the case, from the suspect judges to Manhattan lawyers to oil company scientists who have been indicted for fraud. The innocent are few, the victims are many and nobody comes out of the story clean.