THE BLOG

Seven Years Documenting Chevron's Environmental Crimes in Ecuador Pollution Case

06/01/2015 10:32 am ET | Updated May 31, 2016

After 11 years of litigation in the South American country, eight Ecuador judges have either awarded or affirmed a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron, which it refuses to pay. For background on the Ecuadorians' long-running litigation against Chevron, see here.

Seven years ago this month, I traveled to Ecuador's rainforest to learn about one of the world's largest environmental oil disasters.

It was a life-changing trip.

I wish I were a good enough writer to describe the experience and do it justice. Words and pictures are all that I have ever had to fight Chevron's efforts to deny justice to the 30,000 or so people forced to live with five decades of extremely toxic oil contamination left by Texaco exploration. (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001.)

60 Minutes and Rolling Stone came closest to capturing the horrific devastation and suffering caused by both oil giants.

As the U.S. spokesperson for the Ecuadorians and one of their attorneys, Steven Donziger, I have tried to bring to life this tragic, faraway reality in hundreds of press releases, interviews, tweets and over a dozen blogs I wrote for the Huffington Post.

Today, though, will be my last blog because I've taken a new job.

So here's my final missive, which includes a plea to Chevron and a thank-you to my courageous colleagues.

Chevron CEO John Watson and General Counsel Hewitt Pate could end much misery by stepping outside the courtroom and into the lives of the Ecuadorian indigenous. They could listen to their stories. They could help them clean up what Texaco contaminated.

Will they help? Or, will they become known as the two men who spent at least $1 billion in legal fees to block assistance to the poorest and most disenfranchised people in Ecuador?

Oddly enough, we have Chevron to thank for memorializing some of these stories. A Chevron employee/whistleblower sent the environmental group Amazon Watch a box of videos, which included interviews Chevron conducted with villagers about Texaco's contamination as it was preparing for the Ecuador trial.

Merla, who lives near an oil site that Chevron said Texaco cleaned, told a Chevron cameraman this story in 2006, nine years ago.

Merla: We've had our cows die... They drank the water where the oil had spilled. Back then, that whole area was full of crude oil. The water there was filthy. They came and stopped the leak and they just left all of the crude oil there. It's pure crude there. In the middle, it's a thick ooze and you'd sink right down into it.

Chevron Interviewer: When was this oil spill?

Merla: More than 20 years ago... But I still remember it, how there was oil over everything. The cows still die there. They came, threw some dirt on top of the crude oil, and there it stayed.

Chevron Interviewer: How long ago did they cover up the pit?

Merla: 19 years... Texaco. They came here and just covered up the oil. They kept saying they were going to clean it up and they never did. And then they disappeared.

Chevron Interviewer: Did they remove the crude oil?

Merla: They dumped a lot of dirt on it and that was it.

Other stories are much worse than Merla's - stories about the death of young children, cancer victims who must travel six hours one way for treatment few can afford and infants with rashes all over their bodies.

2015-05-31-1433087327-7069496-photoone.jpeg
Photo by Lou Dematteis of man who later died of cancer

I chose Merla's because underneath the surface of her story is something so sinister it's almost impossible to comprehend.

From 1964 to 1990, Texaco dug huge unlined pits on the drilling sites to store left over toxic drilling muds. Over 900 of these pits remain today largely in the same shape that Texaco left them. Texaco also installed pipes in the pits to dump water laced with carcinogenic chemicals directly into streams and rivers that the indigenous used to drink, cook, and bathe in.

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Photo by Lou Dematteis

Texaco did this to save money. Pure and simple.

Installed by military juntas, the government of Ecuador at that time cared less about the plight of the indigenous and poor villagers.

After the Ecuadorians filed their first lawsuit against Texaco in the U.S. in 1993, the company told Ecuador's government it would remediate some of the pits with the hope the limited "cleanup" would shut down the legal fight.

It didn't. And, as Merla explained, with good reason.

They dumped a lot of dirt on it and that was it.

That was it.

Some villagers, though, believed Texaco had cleaned the pits. So they moved and built homes near the pits that Texaco said it "cleaned," thinking they would be safer.

But they weren't. It was all a big hoax.

Texaco knew it. Chevron knows it.

Chevron's environmental engineers tested for and found contamination at the so-called "remediated" Texaco sites. (See this video of one of those "ah-ha" moments.)

Chevron's technicians also told Merla and others that they would return with help, but they never did.

Texaco lied and Chevron refused to expose the lie, doing nothing to help the people and the environment that Texaco harmed to maximize its profits.


Instead, it undertook a retaliatory campaign to distract attention away from Texaco's mess and demonize the attorneys, representing the Ecuadorians, and other environmentalists and human rights activists supporting them.

Instead, it hired a law firm, Gibson Dunn, and PR firms that pride themselves on helping multinational corporations get out of tough environmental trouble.

With this kind of firepower, Chevron thought the bleeding-heart, do-gooders would give up and go away and the plaintiff lawyers would tire of fronting the money for the litigation.

Chevron could have easily succeeded long ago, if not for a group of people in Ecuador and the U.S. committed to cleaning up the rainforest and bringing clean water and medical services to the people. I have had the honor of working with them for the past seven years:

Humberto Piaguaye, Luis Yanza, Steven Donziger, Pablo Fajardo

Piaguaye and Yanza have served as the voice of "Los Afectados" - the affected ones in the Ecuador rainforest. They have traveled the length and breadth of the rainforest to meet with campesinos (farmers) and indigenous peoples to keep them informed about the case and seek their input. Chevron and a U.S. judge cast doubt on our clients' actual existence, calling them the "so-called plaintiffs" - a reference meant to denigrate their lawsuit by casting them as the "imagination of American lawyers."

Piaguaye and Yanza know otherwise.

Donziger and Fajardo, the Ecuadorians' lead attorneys, have had their reputations smeared in court and in the news media, as a result of Chevron's retaliatory "fraud" campaign in the U.S.

No doubt they made mistakes in the case. Who wouldn't, given Chevron's never-ending pressure campaign across every level of the U.S. and Ecuador governments to get the Ecuadorians' lawsuit dismissed. It is true that the way the two attorneys handled the Cabrera expert report exhibited poor judgment, but it is also true that the Ecuador court threw out the report, as a result of Chevron's opposition to it. Another 105 expert reports still found massive contamination and even Chevron's tests found illegal levels of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals contaminating the water and land people depend on for sustenance.

When it became clear the Cabrera report would not be the undoing of the Ecuadorians and Donziger, who raised all of the funding for the lawsuit, Chevron decided to buy evidence it couldn't get otherwise, paying a corrupt former judge, Alberto Guerra, $2 million in cash and benefits to essentially frame Donziger and Fajardo, accusing them of bribing the sitting trial judge with $500,000 and ghostwriting the judgment themselves.

2 million dollars - that's four times as much as the alleged "bribe" to the sitting trial judge. Testifying he had accepted dozens of bribes in other, unrelated cases, Guerra willingly accepted what was, in essence, yet one more bribe in exchange for his testimony. It was a no brainer for him. This was his ticket out of Ecuador.

Today Guerra, his family, and his son's family all live in undisclosed locations in the U.S., on the Chevron dole for an undetermined amount of time. Guerra had less than $500 in his bank account when he began his application for political asylum, granted by Chevron's friends at the U.S. Department of State.

Recently, new forensic evidence from the Ecuador judge's computers became available, completely contradicting Guerra's paid testimony. The evidence showed the Ecuador judge wrote the judgment over a period of four months on his two computers. Donziger and the Ecuadorians are appealing the fraud charges and are asking the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out the bribery and ghostwriting charges, clearing their names and upholding the integrity of the Ecuador judgment.

Meanwhile, Donziger, his wife and young child have had to endure Chevron's attacks as a result of his zealous representation of his clients. Somehow, through it all, Donziger has never stopped fighting for his clients, as well as for himself and his family. Legal threats (at one point, Chevron sued him for almost $60 billion), harassment and intimidation have never slowed him down.

Fajardo continues to work with other lawyers in Canada and Brazil, where the Ecuadorians are litigating against Chevron to seize company assets as payment for the judgment it refuses to pay in Ecuador. Winner of the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize, Fajardo also has been traveling across Europe to raise awareness.

These two aren't giving up anytime soon.

Juan Pablo Saenz, Julio Prieto, Donald Moncayo, Meg Garcia

Chevron calls these four Ecuadorians criminals and co-conspirators. I call them heroes. They also are salt of the Earth, good people, working tirelessly for little to no pay for years. The Ecuadorians' resources became extremely limited after Chevron sued their litigation funders, accusing them of continuing the fraud by providing resources to fight Chevron. The litigation funders caved to Chevron's pressure, but Saenz, Prieto, Moncayo and Garcia did not. They continue to shed light on Chevron's fraud, its misconduct and environmental crimes.

Amazon Watch: Paul Paz, Kevin Koenig, Mitch Anderson

Paul Paz y Mino and Kevin Koenig of Amazon Watch and Mitch Anderson, a former Amazon Watch campaigner, have year after year organized protests and called attention to Chevron's misconduct at its annual shareholder meetings in the U.S., where socially conscious investors have questioned the company's refusal to help the Ecuadorians. Chevron, at one point, sued Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to obtain the emails of the three men (and the emails of about another 100 activists or so). With the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, they beat back Chevron's attempt to disregard their basic First Amendment rights.

Koenig and Anderson live in Ecuador full time, and Anderson oversees the Clear Water project, which provides clean drinking water for hundreds of rainforest inhabitants.

Aaron Page, Julio Gomez, Rick Friedman, Zoe Littlepage, Rainey Booth, Marissa Vahlsing, Sean Powers

While some of our U.S. lawyers cut and run following legal threats by Chevron and other pressure tactics, most stayed, and these attorneys took a very public role to defend Donziger and the Ecuadorians, not because they wanted to promote themselves in a high profile case or make a ton of money taking a percentage. They simply wanted to do the right thing. They never retreated, even when it was clear a U.S. federal judge decided it was his mission in life to punish Donziger and the "so-called plaintiffs."

Patton Boggs Lawyers

A group of incredibly talented Patton Boggs lawyers became involved in the case around 2010. Patton Boggs usually defended corporations, not poor villagers. The firm switched sides, though, welcoming an opportunity to help the Ecuadorians collect on their judgment. Once they realized the level of deception by Chevron, they were drawn deeply into the case and did not waiver in support of the Ecuadorians, even when Chevron sued them for fraud.

Facing huge financial problems that existed long before the Patton Boggs lawyers represented the Ecuadorians, their colleagues at the white-shoe law and lobbying firm used the Chevron litigation as their excuse to purge the firm of these dedicated lawyers. Patton Boggs turned its back on its poor and powerless Ecuadorian clients. Merging with another firm, its stellar reputation has been forever ruined for its utter lack of courage and ethics.

Graham Erion, Andrew Woods, Laura Garr

Young, super-smart lawyers who could have gone to work for any big, corporate law firm instead worked hand-in-hand with Donziger, Fajardo, Saenz and Prieto both in Ecuador and in the U.S. in the early days of the case, until Chevron threatened to ruin their careers if they continued and eventually got one of them fired from a firm.

Chevron attorney Ted Olson (of Gore v Bush fame) called all of these individuals above, my former colleagues, "very resourceful people" when asked by an appellate judge why the 22-year-old lawsuit hadn't ended.

He is right. They are resourceful, but they are more than that. They used their talents to right an obvious wrong.

Chevron and its 2000 lawyers and legal assistants working on the case have used theirs to hide Merla's story and, as a result, attempt to minimize her, along with so many others, as people.