A judge in Ecuador handed down a landmark ruling against oil giant Chevron this week, ordering the company to pay $8.6 billion and another 10% of that sum in reparations to the Amazon Defense Coalition for oil pollution damages in a remote rainforest on the South American country’s northeast border.
The ruling – one of the largest environmental judgments ever made — is the latest tick in a 17-year drama between Amazonian villagers, who form the Coalition, and the U.S. oil company. The judge has also said that if Chevron does not issue a public apology within 15 days of the ruling, the fine will be doubled.
Chevron’s not likely to deliver that apology anytime soon. Chevron does not, in fact, operate in Ecuador today; the American company acquired the lawsuit when it bought Texaco in 2001. Texaco started oil exploration activities with Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador back in 1964, and for the next three decades, the 47 plaintiffs say, the company contributed to dumping billions of gallons of waste oil in the region, causing loss of livelihood, widespread health problems and up to 1400 deaths. Monday’s judgment awards some $5 billion to soil restoration and some $2 billion to healthcare.
(See pictures of the polluted area.)
Both sides more or less agree on the basic premise that oil exploration caused pollution in a remote swath of Amazonian rainforest. It’s the extent of the pollution, the extent of the repercussions of that pollution, and the extent to which Chevron is responsible for them, that is contested. Texaco paid $40 million to the government to help the region before it left Ecuador in 1992. The plaintiffs, unsatisfied, filed a case against Texaco in 1993.
Since acquiring its subsidiary’s unresolved legal landmine, Chevron has spent millions fighting it, saying Texaco paid its due, and that much of the damage happened after Texaco left. The corporation also claims the legal process since then has been deeply flawed, and that the Ecuadorian courts have been in collusion with the plaintiffs. Last week, Chevron filed its own lawsuit against the plaintiffs in the U.S. for extortion and manipulation of the legal system in Ecuador. The fact that the verdict in Ecuador came a week later fueled Chevron’s claims that the court was not operating independently. A Chevron spokesperson immediately said that the company has no intention of paying the damages and will appeal the ruling in the Ecuadorian legal system.
The plaintiffs, who are not happy with the $8.6 billion, plan to appeal the award amount. According to the New York Times, the Coalition also intends to wage legal battles against Chevron in more than a dozen countries where it has large operations, such as the U.S., Brazil, Venezuela, and Canada, to pressure the company to pay up.
At least one of Coalition’s legal assessments estimates damages to run as high as $113 billion. After the trial, one tribe leader from the affected area told the BBC that two of his children had died from drinking contaminated water. “You can’t recover dead people, there is no price for that,” he told the news outlet. “Our demand is to get enough money to clean up our Amazon.”