LA JOYA DE LOS SACHAS, Ecuador — After a decade of court battles, lawyers on Wednesday took a lawsuit by Ecuadorean Indians against ChevronTexaco into the Amazon forest.
Scientists started taking soil samples, hoping to prove, or disprove, that a Texaco subsidiary contaminated groundwater supplies during its oil operations in Ecuador from 1972 to 1992.
The tests near the sweltering town of La Joya de los Sachas marked the beginning of six months of inspections.
“I think we stand a good chance that science will provide the truth that everyone down here has been looking for for 30 years,” said Steven Donziger, attorney for 88 plaintiffs representing 30,000 locals.
ChevronTexaco saw it differently. “These inspections have no judicial value, whatsoever,” oil company lawyer Alfonso Callejas said, alleging that the plaintiffs visited the sites ahead of the judge to influence the lawsuit.
“This is a circus,” added spokesman Christopher Gides after spotting six technicians, sent by the plaintiffs, in white lab suits, protective gloves, goggles, helmets and masks.
122 sites to be inspected
The case is one of a kind in Ecuador. Lawyers sweating through button-down shirts trudged through high brush to point out the sites they planned to have drilled, bringing the judge to the site of the evidence rather than filing it in court.
The plaintiffs allege a Texaco subsidiary chose to dump 18.5 billion gallons of oily wastewater brought up by drilling into more than 600 open pits, instead of re-injecting it back underground, a common practice in the developed world.
They want ChevronTexaco to bankroll additional clean up and provide medical care for people harmed by pollution. They estimate the costs could exceed $1 billion. Ecuadorean law does not permit cash awards for class action plaintiffs.
The company says it paid for a $40 million clean-up that was approved by the Ecuadorean government, and that its oil production practices met industry standards at the time. It also blames state-owned Petroecuador, its former partner in the oil project, for most of the pollution.
Both plan to use standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization for hydrocarbon levels to measure the risks.
Long legal road
Plaintiffs filed suit in Ecuador last year after a U.S. court threw out the 1993 case over issues of jurisdiction.
“Up until now, for 10 years it’s been procedural and legal and now it’s science. Science has to be allowed to prevail,” said ChevronTexaco spokesman Chris Gidez.
Inspections hit a rocky start when ChevronTexaco accused plaintiffs of tampering with evidence by taking preliminary samples without a judge present to prepare the field.
Plaintiffs and defendants will send samples taken from the field to laboratories in Ecuador and the United States. Once inspections are completed, another group of scientists appointed by Judge Efrain Novillo will review the results.
Locals, celebrity at public hearing
As lawyers debated under a tent in sweltering heat, a handful of local residents gathered to watch on the fringe of this rundown town 110 miles northeast of Quito.
Wearing a traditional red robe, Secoya Indian Milton Payaguaje traveled four hours to demand Texaco clean up the rivers where he lives. “Animals drink water and die, and people get sick when they go swimming,” the 19-year old said at a public hearing.
“We have stomach pain, dizziness, skin rashes and we are constantly sick,” added Elias Zurita. Zurita, 40, said he has lived 10 feet from a toxic pool since he was eight.
The first day of the public hearing drew about 100 residents, lawyers, journalists and activists, including celebrity Bianca Jagger.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.