THE BLOG
07/06/2007 10:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Justice in Oil Well Hell

Most of us already know that our survival as a species may well depend on how we confront the challenge of global warming. The task ahead will be amplified in the Live Earth concert on all seven continents this Saturday, when two billion listeners will be asked to sign a personal pledge to combat climate change.

But few are aware that we face another serious environmental challenge: how to hold oil companies accountable for creating hellish conditions in their quest for oil.

Since the dawn of the industrial age, accidental oil spills and intentional dumping have posed major environmental threats. But the height of reckless disregard may have been reached in the Amazon, where oil damage is still as visible as it was three decades ago, when oil was pumped there with no apparent concern for the environment.

The damage probably won't affect global weather patterns. But to Ecuadorans, the toxic soup oozing from the earth beneath their feet is even more palpable. And the company accused of inflicting the damage -- Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001 -- is trying to walk away.

The world's oil behemoths are focused on a grimy frontier town in the Ecuador outback. In a makeshift jungle courthouse, what could be the biggest environmental case in history is being tried: a lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorans seeking damages for contamination caused by Texaco over the 25 years it operated wells in the country.

Cleanup could cost $6 billion, a drop in the bucket for Chevron, which earned nearly $194 billion in 2005, more than six times the gross domestic product of Ecuador. Still, a verdict against Chevron could bring on a sea change in how oil companies operate, forcing them to tidy up oil exploration and make environmental sustainability a corporate tenet.

The case seems almost surreal. It involves 1,700 square miles of once-pristine jungle now deemed to be among the globe's worst contaminated sites. The courthouse -- little more than a tent with portable plastic furniture -- sits in a violent town called Lago Agrio, or Sour Lake, named for the Texas town where Texaco was founded in 1902. The presiding judge (there is no jury) once narrowly escaped assassination -- by machine-gunnists.

Chevron's team of high-priced lawyers -- flown in from Quito, Ecuador's capital -- match legal wits with the peasant-born lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Pablo Fajardo, who earned his law degree in a correspondence course. In his first trial, he is David facing Goliath. So far the case has dragged on for four years, producing 200,000 pages of legal documents.

The story behind the case begins with an oil boom -- Texaco discovered oil in 1967 and went into full production five years later. The company drilled more than 300 wells and created 18 separation stations where they dumped most of the waste water. It also built a 312-mile pipeline through the jungle and over the Andes to bring crude to a Pacific port for shipment to California refineries.

For 20 years, Texaco earned windfall profits, though there were problems from the start. The pipeline spilled more than 17 million gallons of crude oil into the Amazon, 6 million more than the Exxon Valdez spilled.

Texaco also used methods of waste disposal that were ruled illegal in Texas back in 1939. Instead of re-injecting toxic wastes back into oil reservoirs -- which is standard practice -- it pumped toxic sludge into leaky, unlined pits gouged out of the jungle floor. When the pits filled with sludge, it was piped into the nearest river or swamp.

Meanwhile, the air was laden with thick black smoke from gases and waste burn-off. When it rained, it snowed black soot, and the streets turned slick with oil. In a Cofan Indian village, people started to notice the water tasted different. When they complained, they were told it was full of minerals and vitamins that would be good for their children.

Two decades later, Texaco pulled out, leaving behind hundreds of open-air pits. In the end, it dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic-laden waste water.

Mr. Fajardo argues that as a result of hydrocarbon contamination in drinking water, the plaintiffs suffer from pulmonary diseases, digestive failure, high rates of miscarriage, and cancer. Their crops wilt. Their livestock sicken and die, and so do people.

For its part, Chevron denies Texaco contaminated the rainforest, and claims there's no link between the potable water and cancer, birth defects or skin disease suffered in the area. Chevron agreed to finance a $40 million cleanup in 1998, bulldozing dirt without first removing toxins, and then planted trees around the pits. It insists Texaco lived up to Ecuador's environmental standards.

Tests, however, show the soil is still tainted. Sludge still oozes under foot. Black dew beads on plants, and rivers, once clear and full of fish, are home to only the scrappiest varieties of fish, which are easily fried in their own grease.

And many of the oil pits are on fire -- a landscape of Bunsen burners spewing noxious fumes.

On a field trip, I was taken to one of these waste pits, or "piscinas." Some of them are covered in earth, but the one I saw was open, with vertical flares burning off the gas. The fumes almost knocked me over. I had a severe headache, a burning throat and felt disoriented and confused, and that was after only half an hour. Imagine how it is for the people who've lived there 20 years. With the flares burning up around me, I can only describe it as a scene from hell.

For the six indigenous groups in the area, there's a continual struggle for survival. There is no source of clean water on ancestral lands, and cancer rates in the area appear to be rising.

I met Maria Garofalos, 37-year-old mother of Silvia, 18 years old. Maria has cancer of the uterus; Silvia has cancer of the liver. With each session of chemotherapy costing $500 and involving a 18-hour bus journey to the clinic, Maria accompanies her daughter but forgoes her own treatment so that Silvia may have a better chance of survival. It's every parents' instinct to feed and nourish their young, and yet in this part of Ecuador what that means is giving them toxic water to drink. There is no choice. They can't go and buy a bottle of Evian. The very air that they breathe is laden with noxious fumes and particles from the burning off of the waste dumps. It's a tragic irony that Maria's maternal need to nurture her child has come to this extreme - sacrificing her own cancer treatment for her daughter's.

The identity of those affected is profoundly connected to their land, where they have lived for millennia. It goes against their very nature to just pick up and move on. But even the few who have begged to be relocated and compensated have been ignored. They are too poor to move elsewhere, and the Ecuadoran government has been unresponsive. So they pin their hopes on jungle justice and on whether Mr. Fajardo can prevent an oil giant from leaving unscathed, the way it sauntered in.

We have a moral obligation to respond to both the human suffering and the ecological catastrophe. If we let companies inflict damage to the Amazon without repercussion, they may then spill oil almost anywhere, including other jungles or under polar ice. With global warming already bearing down on us, how long can we afford to look the other way?

Trudie Styler along with her husband Sting co-founded the Rainforest Foundation, an organization devoted to protecting rainforests and their indigenous peoples.