The ongoing saga of the class action lawsuit, Aguinda v. Chevron, originally filed in 1993 by the people of Ecuador whose rainforest land had been contaminated by oil production practices, and documented on film by Joe Berlinger in Crude, has taken a new turn. Chevron's latest diversionary and delaying tactic is to engage in a widespread and unprecedented legal assault on the First Amendment in their attempt to force Berlinger, the celebrated independent documentarian, to turn over more than 600 hours of private film outtakes from Crude.
Chevron's legal tactic has attracted widespread criticism from prominent individuals across the media community, including actor and filmmaker Robert Redford, journalist Bill Moyers, bestselling author John Perkins, documentarians Michael Moore and Ric Burns, the Director's Guild of America, the Writer's Guild of America, and others.
Virtually every major U.S. media outlet, including the NY Times, LA Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, Associated Press, Dow Jones, HBO, and others have opposed Chevron's action in court.
This latest action by Chevron is part of a worldwide, desperate litigation campaign by the oil giant to escape liability for what is thought to be the world's worst oil-related environmental catastrophe. The extent of the contamination is almost unfathomable - by Chevron's own admission they dumped at least 15.8 billion gallons of toxic 'produced water' in the region, and their own audits indicate that the number may actually be much higher - more than 18.5 billion gallons.
Of the 18.5 billion gallons of toxins, at least 345 million gallons of it was pure crude oil. To put this in perspective, as of June 15, 2010, U.S. government estimates have indicated that the BP spill in the Gulf has spilled somewhere between 73 and 126 million gallons of oil. At least the BP spill was not intentional. By contrast, Chevron's dumping was, by the company's own admission, a deliberate production decision to maximize profits. According to experts, a saving of approximately $1-3 per barrel of oil was achieved by dumping the toxins rather than disposing of them properly.
The end result of this has been incredible devastation of a formerly pristine section of Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. Though Chevron no longer operates in the area (having ceased Ecuadorian drilling operations in 1990), the pollution still remains.
The people living in that region do not have widespread running water or plumbing, and have had no access to water that has not been polluted by the oil operations for nearly four decades. I have seen firsthand the reality of the aftermath of Chevron's actions in Ecuador. I have seen some of the unlined, unfenced waste pits that Chevron left behind. I have met many people there who have lost their parents, their children, and who are losing heir own lives. The area is besieged with oil-related illnesses; families are plagued with extremely elevated levels of childhood leukemia, spontaneous abortions, birth defects, and other serious oil-related health impacts. Experts have estimated that at least 1,400 people have died needlessly from oil-related sicknesses due to the illegal dumping.
In 1993, the people in the region brought a lawsuit against the oil giant to force the company to clean-up the damage it caused on their land. An independent court-expert has estimated that the damage caused in the region could cost as much as $27.3 billion to clean up. However, even that amount will be insufficient to return the people to the lifestyles they knew before the Chevron showed up.
Small wonder Chevron are running scared. Without taking sides in the lawsuit itself, the enormous legal liability tied to all of these harms provides the context for why Chevron is so aggressively attacking its critics across the world.
Chevron has one animating principle in their attacks on Joe Berlinger, the Ecuadorean people, and anyone attempting to hold the company responsible for the pollution it left behind in Ecuador: to find some way of eliminating the legal liability to protect the company's bottom line.
But the time has come for Chevron to stop its attacks, and to stop trying to evade its responsibilities. The company should cease its futile attempts to force documentarians and journalists to open up their files to the company's lawyers, and instead focus on the essential issue: how they will remediate the damage it caused in Ecuador to the 30,000 affected people and their land.