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More Drama From Chevron In The Ecuador Amazon Pollution Case

CHRIS KAHN   02/10/10 05:25 PM ET   AP

NEW YORK — Chevron Corp. has stepped up its offensive against a group that says the oil giant poisoned sections of the Amazon rain forest.

After spending months discrediting the political and legal system in Ecuador, where a court is considering a fine against the company, Chevron now claims that a court-appointed expert gave biased testimony in the case.

The expert, Richard Cabrera, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But lawyers representing people affected by the pollution said Chevron is simply making a last-ditch effort to delay what could be a massive penalty against the company.

The judgment may reach $27 billion, more than twice the company's 2009 earnings.

"They're losing the case based on the evidence," said Steven R. Donziger, an American legal adviser to the plaintiffs. "So they're trying to fabricate issues to try to taint the image of the trial."

Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Amazon Defense Coalition, pointed out that the company previously praised the fairness and competency of Ecuador's courts and lobbied to have the case moved there from a U.S. federal court.

"They change their argument depending on how desperate they are at any given time," Hinton said.

The battle over who should clean up a beleaguered swath of the Amazon has tumbled through several courts over the past 17 years. Ecuadoreans blame Texaco, which operated oil fields in the area from 1972 to 1990. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001.

Communities near the oil fields say Texaco dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into unlined pits. Their lawyers say the contamination may have led to a spike in cancer rates.

Chevron doesn't dispute that the region was damaged. But Texaco previously paid $40 million to clean up the area and Chevron says Ecuador released the company from any further liability.

Last year, before the Ecuador court could issue its ruling, Chevron released secretly recorded videos that it claims show that the judge had already decided to rule against Chevron. The Ecuador government quickly disputed those claims and said the video appeared to be manipulated.

Judge Juan Evangelista Nunez recused himself from the case, nevertheless.

This week, Chevron said in a court filing that the court's environmental expert, Cabrera, is the majority owner of an oil field cleanup company. Chevron said Cabrera's company could profit from such a massive settlement. Company lawyers also said Cabrera inflated the amount of money it would take to clean up the area and accused Ecuador of allowing the court proceeding to replenish government coffers.

"What you have now is a judicial charade in which the government is pretending" the lawsuit came from private interests, Chevron attorney Hewitt Pate told The Associated Press. But the government intends to collect most of the fine, he said.

Pate said Chevron would refuse to pay any fine out of the Ecuador court. Chevron wants an international arbitrator to hear the case.

But if Chevron loses the case, Donziger said the plaintiffs will force it to comply by taking the judgment before courts in other countries where Chevron is currently operating.

"Chevron has (assets) in 100 different countries in the world," he said. "If we need to, we will go to every last one of them to satisfy this judgment."

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Filed by Katherine Goldstein  |