Sunday, January 18, 2009


Our second full day in Ecuador we took a short flight to the town of Coca (known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana on maps) to see firsthand the contamination caused by oil exploration. Before oil was discovered in the 1960s, Ecuador's eastern rain forest was home to indigenous people, a handful of Christian missionaries and not much else. In the northern oriente, oil companies cut down the forest to build roads and towns, and settlers flooded into the area. From what we saw of Coca, oil wealth hasn't brought much prosperity to the people, but has resulted in shocking pollution.

Our guide in Coca was an organizer with the Amazon Defense Front - a community group that has brought a lawsuit against Texaco (now owned by Chevron) to force them to pay for a clean-up. We drove around the area and saw stuff like this:
This is a pit where waste oil and produced water were dumped by Texaco in the early '70s. We found this pit about 50 feet behind this family's house. The family relied on a well for water and livestock and fruit trees for food -- it was hard to imagine that all were not horribly contaminated. Apparently they had complained for stomach aches for years (anecdotally we heard a lot about elevated rates of cancer and miscarriage). The Correa government is now paying to clean-up this site.

Starting in the '60s Texaco (in a consortium with Petroecuador) drilled more than 300 oil wells and created more than 1,000 pools like this one. Standard practice in the U.S. at the time was to re-inject the waste products into the well after pumping; in Ecuador (because no one was watching) they just dumped it in the jungle. In 1990 Texaco sold their stake in the oil field to Petroecuador and left the country. A few years later they paid to remediate some of the waste pools and the government of Ecuador agreed to absolve them of all future liability.

Except that the locals didn't think Texaco had done a very good clean-up job and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. courts alleging that Texaco dumped nearly 17 million gallons of oil into the rivers and forests (more than the Exxon Valdez), and left behind hundreds of unlined open waste pits. If you read their website (or their defenders in the WSJ) Chevron's defense seems to be something along these lines:
  • the jungle really isn't contaminated at all, we cleaned it up in the 90s
  • if it seems like the jungle is contaminated, it totally isn't our fault, we blame Petroecuador
  • and if it is our fault, the waste oil and produced water aren't even bad for you (trust us!)
After years of delay and stupid lawyer tricks the case was moved to the Ecuadorean courts, and now it kind of looks like Chevron might actually lose and have to pay the community upwards of $16 *billion* in damages.

We visited 3 other waste pools. The first was in the process of being cleaned up by the government, the second had an outlet pipe that flowed into a nearby stream (!) and the final one was one of the pools that had been "remediated" Texaco in the '90s. A family home had been built on top of the site in the meantime, but our guide took a post-hole digger and a mere six inches below the surface dug up contaminated soil.
He mentioned that Texaco had simply bulldozed earth on top of many of the waste pits - and that this shoddy work was one of the reasons they might lose the case. Anyway, here are the pictures. They don't really do justice to the visceral sense of outrage I think we all felt while we were there.

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