Chevron Corp. is sharpening its attacks against two opponents in a 15-year legal battle over whether the oil company should foot a multibillion-dollar bill to clean up a toxic stew in the Amazon rainforests.
The San Ramon-based company intensified its criticism Monday while two Ecuadoreans, Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza, were in San Francisco to pick up the Goldman Prize, a prestigious honor and $150,000 award given to individuals for their environmental achievements.
Fajardo and Yanza won the award for spearheading a class-action lawsuit alleging that a company acquired by Chevron poisoned a 1,700-square-mile expanse of the Ecuadorean jungle — an area the size of Rhode Island.
The complaint, which dates back to 1993, alleges hundreds of jungle villagers are still dying from cancer and other serious health problems caused by the 18.5 billion gallons of oily wastewater that was improperly left behind.
Chevron has steadfastly denied any responsibility for the mess and instead has blamed the Ecuadorean government, which held the majority stake in a joint oil venture that operated from 1964 through 1992.
But a court-appointed expert in the lawsuit's Ecuadorean trial dealt Chevron a setback earlier this month by submitting a report recommending the company be required to pay up to $16 billion in damages. Chevron ridiculed those findings as a farce. It could still be another year before a judge rules in a trial that began in 2003.
The attention that Fajardo and Yanza are getting from the Goldman Prize prodded Chevron to counter with its own public relations assault.
"We feel these guys are nothing but con men," Chevron spokesman Don Campbell said. To punctuate its point, Chevron intends to run a full-page ad deriding Fajardo and Yanza in Tuesday's San Francisco Chronicle, the largest daily newspaper in northern California.
'Lies and slander,' winner says
Speaking through a translator Monday, Yanza said he was "extremely upset" by the company's attack. "Chevron has implemented a campaign of lies and slander against us," said Yanza, who co-founded a coalition that helped organize the 30,000 people represented in the suit against Chevron.
Fajardo, a former farmer who became a lawyer to fight Chevron, interpreted the company's indignation over the Goldman Prize as a sign of desperation.
"The case is advancing very well and it is possible that in a very short amount of time we will achieve justice," Fajardo said through a translator.
The Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund, the foundation that has been awarding the environmental prize for 19 years, said Fajardo and Yanza were selected after five months of fact checking and advice from experts around the world.
"The Goldman Environmental Prize is proud to add Fajardo and Yanza to its list of impressive recipients," Richard Goldman said in a statement.
One of the Goldman Prize's previous winners, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Chevron calls foundation biased
The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund has made grants of at least $150,000 since 2003 to Amazon Watch, a group that is working with Fajardo and Yanza in the case against Chevron. The grants were made to help protect the Amazon against oil exploration and drilling, according to the fund's annual reports.
Campbell cited the Amazon Watch grants as evidence of a biased process that led to the decision to honor Fajardo and Yanza without obtaining Chevron's perspective.
The suit against Chevron focuses on alleged abuses that occurred under Texaco Inc., which Chevron bought for $39 billion in 2001.
Texaco spent $40 million cleaning up the Ecuadorean oil pits from 1995 to 1998, an investment that satisfied the Ecuadorean government at the time.
As the second largest U.S. oil company, Chevron earned $18.7 billion last year on $221 billion in revenue.
The other Goldman Prize winners are:
- Feliciano dos Santos, of Mozambique, who uses traditional music, grassroots outreach and innovative technology to bring sanitation to remote areas.
- Rosa Hilda Ramos, of Puerto Rico, who helps protect the Las Cucharillas marsh from factory pollution near San Juan.
- Jesus Leon Santos, of Mexico, for promoting ancient indigenous practices to transform depleted soil into arable land in Oaxaca.
- Marina Rikhvanova, of Russia, for protecting Siberia’s Lake Baikal, one of the world’s most important sources of fresh water.
- Ignace Schops, of Belgium, for raising more than $90 million to establish Belgium’s first and only national park.