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40 Years of Dumping Nets $9 Billion Fine

Chevron faces record penalty for contaminating the Amazon

Forty years ago, Texaco started dumping what would become more than 18 billion gallons of toxic materials into unlined pits and directly into Amazon basin rivers. They kept this up for 20 years. Animals died, people got cancer, and crops were damaged.

Thirty years later, attorneys representing 30,000 people of Ecuador brought the matter to court with a billion-dollar lawsuit. The trial began in 2003 after a decade of legal battles in the United States.

Last month, a court in Ecuador finally levied a fine of more than $9 billion on the oil giant Chevron, which had acquired Texaco 10 years earlier.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Chevron, whose profits for the past two years alone have topped $50 billion, has launched an appeal. “If there are any environmental damages that currently exist in the region where Texaco used to operate, those problems are entirely the responsibility of the Ecuadorean state and of Petroecuador, the state oil company,” said James Craig, Chevron’s spokesperson, in Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

Chevron denies any responsibility for what happened. The company continues to say that the cancer is due to poor sanitation, that they did all the clean-up work that was requested, that a report by a court-appointed expert is fraudulent, and that there’s no real science behind the plaintiffs’ claims.

One of the villagers at a press conference after the court ruling

“I want people to come here and see the damage,” said Donald Moncayo, a member of the Amazon Defense Coalition, which represents the 30,000 local residents. “My parents died in my arms. I have fought together with others so that they don’t cause harm to other families, so that other families don’t suffer like we have.”

Regardless of what happens next, the court’s decision represents the largest environmental award in history, dwarfing the $5 billion award against Exxon Mobil after the 1989 Alaska oil spill. But it may be many more years before the case and its appeals are finally resolved.

“This is the beginning,” said Guillermo Grefa, head of the Quichua indigenous community. “Our pachamama [Mother Earth] is dead.”