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Ecuadorian Court Orders Chevron to Pay $17 Billion for Oil Pollution in Amazon

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The oil giant Chevron has been ordered to pay more than $17 billion in fines and punitive damages in a long-running case over environmental contamination in Ecuador. Amazonian residents sued Texaco, which was then purchased by Chevron, for dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste into Ecuador’s rain forest since the 1970s. On Monday, an Ecuadorian judge ordered Chevron to pay an $8.6 billion fine and an equal amount in punitive damages. It’s the second-largest total assessed for environmental damages behind the $20 billion compensation fund for BP’s Gulf Coast oil spill. Chevron has vowed to appeal, but it has also suggested it will not pay up under any circumstance, calling the ruling “illegitimate and unenforceable.” The plaintiffs also say they plan to appeal because the damages are too low. Joining us to talk about the case is Andrew Miller with Amazon Watch. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The oil giant Chevron has been fined over $17 billion in a long-running case over environmental contamination in Ecuador. Amazonian residents have sued Chevron for dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste into Ecuador’s rain forest since the '70s. On Monday, an Ecuadorian judge ordered Chevron to pay an $8.6 billion fine and an equal amount in punitive damages. It's the second-largest total assessment for environmental damages, behind the $20 billion compensation fund for BP’s Gulf Coast oil spill. Under the ruling, the punitive damages would be waived if Chevron issues a public apology within 15 days.

Chevron has vowed to appeal, but it’s also suggested it won’t pay up under any circumstances, calling the ruling, quote, “illegitimate and unenforceable.” The plaintiffs, meanwhile, say they plan to appeal, as well, because the damages are too low. On Monday, a spokesperson for the plaintiffs, Luis Lanza, reacted to the verdict.

LUIS LANZA: [translated] We are very happy. We are inspired to continue with the fight. However, yes, we express our disappointment in regards to the economic figure that the judge has given in his ruling. We believe that $8 billion that the judge has ruled does not meet our expectations based on tests and facts. It is not enough to cover the majority of damages or to repair said damages.

AMY GOODMAN: The ruling comes over 17 years after the case was first filed in a New York court. Chevron successfully fought to have it moved to Ecuador in 2003. In 2008, reports emerged that Chevron had lobbied the Bush administration to remove special trade preferences for Ecuador to pressure the Ecuadorian government to block the case. Chevron has also filed counter-suits against the plaintiffs, their attorneys and the Ecuadorian government in U.S. courts and at The Hague.

For more on the case, we’re joined now from Washington, D.C., by Andrew Miller, the D.C. advocacy coordinator for Amazon Watch. We did ask Chevron to appear on the broadcast, but they declined our request.

So, Andrew, explain what the response is to the court’s ruling.

ANDREW MILLER: Well, Amy, thank you very much for having me on, and it’s really a pleasure, after 18 years, to be able to be announcing to your listeners and to your viewers that this historic judgment has come out. And it’s really a great day for the 30,000 plaintiffs in this case who have been seeking justice.

Of course, Chevron has been fighting this at every possible step. They’ve been fighting it in the courts. They’ve been trying to fight it, you know, in terms of public opinion. They’ve been trying to fight it in political spheres, as you indicated. But finally, the Ecuadorian court system has agreed with what the plaintiffs have been saying for several decades, which is, essentially, that Chevron — well, Texaco, which is now owned by Chevron, over the course of two-and-a-half decades, it planned, created, implemented a system which systematically polluted in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It left hundreds of toxic waste pits. It dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste. And really, the whole time that this trial has been going on over the course of 18 years, the communities continue to live with that legacy, and they continue to suffer the impacts, the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the environmental impacts of that destruction.

And so, this is an important day for the communities. It’s just one step; it’s not a victory. But it is very crucial for them. It’s also an important day for the broader struggle for corporate accountability around the world, for broader struggles for environmental justice and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at an article from Bloomberg. It says, “Chevron [Corp.], the second-largest U.S. oil company, may never pay a cent of the more than $17 billion in fines and penalties levied by an Ecuadorean court for environmental damage… Chevron doesn’t have any refineries, storage terminals, oil wells or other properties in Ecuador that could be seized to pressure the company to pay, said Mark Gilman, an analyst at Benchmark Co. LLC in New York. In anticipation of an adverse ruling, Chevron went to court in New York last week to obtain an order shielding the company anywhere in the world from collection efforts related to the case.” Your response, Andrew Miller?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, ultimately, we’re going to have to leave that up to the lawyers. There are going to be appeals in the Ecuadorian system. We know that. Both Chevron is going to appeal, to try to get the ruling thrown out, the plaintiffs are also going to appeal, because they don’t believe that the ruling, that the damages, are sufficient. So, that process is going to continue, we assume, in the months that come, in the years that come.

You know, but it’s important that the people who have been following this case — and I know you’ve been following it for years, and many others. Amazon Watch has been working on it for 10 years. Many other groups, Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty International, have been backing the plaintiffs in their case and the campaign in different ways. So it’s obvious that we’re going to have to continue to wage this campaign well into the future. But this is still an important step. And again, not only in this case, but we assume that communities around the world are also listening to this, and, you know, we might be seeing other similar kinds of actions against corporations that have polluted and have contributed to human rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: In Chevron’s statement, which they pointed us to rather than coming on, aside from saying that the court’s judgment is “illegitimate and unenforceable,” they say it’s “the product of fraud and is contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence.” They go on to say, “Chevron intends to see the perpetrators of this fraud are held accountable for [their] misconduct.” What exactly do they mean?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, I mean, essentially, Chevron is trying to play themselves off as the victim here, which is quite extraordinary, of course — one of the largest corporations in the world, you know, essentially against some of the most marginalized communities in the world, indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon. You know, and one of the extraordinary things here is that Chevron fought for years, actually, to have the jurisdiction moved from the United States to Ecuador. And they claimed that they could get a fair trial there, they claimed that they could get a transparent trial, and they essentially agreed to accept whatever the decision was. So they fought for years to do that.

Also, the evidence that they’re talking of, I mean, the evidence that was used by the judge, is actually Chevron’s own evidence. The thousands of soil samples were carried out by the court, were carried out by experts that had been brought on by the plaintiffs, and also were carried out by scientists and experts that were brought on by Chevron. So, the evidence in this judgment is actually Chevron’s own evidence. So it’s their evidence. It’s in the venue that they fought for for a long time. And, you know, I essentially think that Chevron doesn’t want this to happen in any jurisdiction, whether it’s the United States or Ecuador or anywhere around the world. Effectively, they believe that they’re above the law. And, you know, the Ecuadorian communities that have been affected by their operations are saying otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: How large a swath of land are we talking about in Ecuador, Andrew Miller?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, we’re talking about thousands of different acres. It’s worth mentioning that this is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. I mean, where the Andes and the Amazon meet is a biodiversity hot spot. It’s also the headwaters of the Amazon River, so when we’re talking about water pollution, the effect is not simply limited to these, you know, tens of thousands of acres that are being affected by ChevronTexaco’s former operating sites there, but it’s also all of the communities downstream. Of course, there are many other oil operators in the same part of the world that are also polluting. We’re seeing a lot of oil spills in northern Peru right now, which are really the same rivers. So we can assume it’s also the communities all downstream, down the Amazon River, that are ultimately indirectly affected by these operations.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the first time indigenous people have sued a multinational corporation in the country where the crime was committed and won?

ANDREW MILLER: This is the first time, yeah, that we know of. So, in that sense, it’s very much historic. It’s not the only case, of course, that’s being brought against multinational corporations. There are similar cases. I just mentioned in northern Peru, there’s a similar case from Achuar communities against Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. That case is much in sort of earlier stages, and we expect a multi-year legal battle on that front, too. But yeah, this is the first time that one of the largest corporations in the world is essentially and effectively being held accountable in a court system for past environmental damages, for human rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Miller, we want to thank you for being us, D.C. advocacy coordinator for Amazon Watch.

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