4-15-08 by dugan
Chevron’s world headquarters in San Ramon, Calif., is less than 40
miles from San Francisco’s stately opera house. So if bad thoughts
could kill, last night’s audience for the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize would be slumped in their seats. Two winners of the "environmental Nobel Prize" were Ecuadoran activists, lawyer
Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community organizer Luis Yanza, who have
spent years battling Chevron in a mega-lawsuit against widespread oil
contamination in the Amazon. Chevron has spent about as much time
trying to discredit the men and the lawsuit, so the Goldman is the
worst imaginable P.R. setback.
Chevron said in a press release Monday that "We
tried to reach out to the Goldman Foundation when we heard they might
be in consideration, but we were stiff-armed." Translation: "Even our
army of lawyers couldn’t shut up Richard Goldman."
Goldman, the prize sponsor, kept the stiff arm out in his response. He called Fajardo and Yanza ""two ordinary Ecuadorans
addressing a problem that impacts 30,000 of their countrymen:
petrochemical waste spoiling hundreds of square miles of Amazon rain
forest. Their work is motivated by a single desire: to ensure that
their corner of the Amazon – one of the world’s most contaminated
industrial sites – is cleaned up."
The San Francisco Chronicle story noted that previous winners included Kenyan tree planter Wangari
Maathai, who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and the late Nigerian
playwright Ken Saro Wiwa, who fought Shell Oil Co.’s practices in his
homeland. Saro Wiwa was executed for his resistance.
The thumbnail description of the lawsuit is in the same story:
The roots of the lawsuit
against Chevron – in which Yanza organized thousands of plaintiffs and
Fajardo is a lead attorney – date back to 1964, when Texaco began
pumping oil in a remote corner of northern Ecuador, in a partnership
with Petroecuador, the state oil company. The suit alleges that Texaco,
which was bought by Chevron in 2001, dumped 18 billion gallons of crude
oil-tainted water in 1,000 unlined toxic waste pits.
The company left Ecuador in 1992 and carried out a $40 million
cleanup, which the Ecuadoran government approved. Chevron maintains it
has done its fair share.
That doesn’t begin to get at the bitterness in this
multibillion-dollar lawsuit. Chevron’s if-thoughts-could-kill position
came closer to the surface in this quote from the company’s lead
lawyer: "Even [Fajardo and
Yanza] get a bogus decree out of a court in Ecuador, their ability to
enforce this is going to be very limited."
However, a U.S. federal court last year refused Chevron’s demand to remove the case from Ecuador,
making it more likely that any award would be collectable. And
Chevron’s lawyers haven’t yet found a way to take back the $150,000
each that the two men took home from the Goldman prize.
For a longer, beautifully written tale of the Ecuador case, see William Langeweische’s May 2007 Vanity Fair cover story, "Jungle Law". Bonus: cover photo of Fajardo and old oil pipelines in the jungle.