Richmond’s Ecuador Connection

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24 

In the United States, it’s not often that a controversial foreign government weighs in publicly about environmental damage caused by a major corporate polluter. But, if that government is headed by Rafael Correa, the outspoken populist president of Ecuador, and the company involved is Chevron, the gloves are off.

When several thousand environmental activists marched on Chevron Corp.’s massive oil refinery in Richmond, California, last summer–to protest air pollution, workplace safety hazards, and global warming–their demonstration was hailed in an unusual local newspaper ad.

In a full-page message “from the people of Ecuador,” Correa’s government noted that Ecuadorans have been engaged in “a long-running dispute with Chevron over the dumping of toxic waste in the northern part of the Amazon region of their country,” while the city of Richmond has waged its own struggle with the company since a refinery explosion and fire created a towering plume of toxic smoke on August 6, 2012.  Workers who responded to this emergency narrowly escaped death and more than 15,000 area residents sought emergency room care after being showered with fall-out from the blast.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board soon discovered that, ten years earlier, Chevron’s own engineers recommended repairing the corroded pipe at fault. State inspectors cited Chevron for eleven “willful” safety violations and imposed a one million dollar penalty, the largest fine in California’s history. Chevron pled “no contest” to six criminal charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay $2 million in fines and restitution.

But when the blue-collar city of Richmond tried to secure further compensation for its largely non-white population of 100,000, Chevron made a settlement offer of $10 million or less. (Among the losses suffered by Richmond was a $1.8 billion decline in its assessed property values, a drop adversely affecting local tax revenues.) So last year, Richmond’s feisty Green Mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, won city council approval to sue Chevron, her city’s largest employer, for its “years of neglect, lax oversight, and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”

In its message of support on the first anniversary of the Richmond refinery fire, Ecuador offered some savvy litigation advice.  “In the fight against Chevron,” Correa’s ad declared, ‘the people of Ecuador and the people of Richmond can deploy the most devastating weapon ever invented….The Truth!”


 A Legal Quagmire?

Within weeks of this unusual expression of cross-border solidarity,  Mayor McLaughlin was winging her way to Quito to meet with President Correa personally and affirm her city’s shared interest in bringing Chevron to justice. Unfortunately, if Ecuador’s courtroom battles with Big Oil are any guide, it may be quite a while before Richmond collects the many millions of dollars it is seeking from Chevron for locally inflicted financial and environmental damage.

Ecuadorans launched their own protracted case against Chevron in 2003. The environmental damage in dispute dates back to the 1970s and ‘80s, when Ecuador’s Lago Agrio oil field was being exploited, under a friendlier government, by Texaco, a U.S. firm later acquired by Chevron. In the 1990s, Texaco agreed to pay $40 million to clean up the mess it left behind, after dumping much toxic waste in the Amazon rainforest. In1998. The Ecuadoran government then absolved Texaco of any further financial responsibility.

For good reason, the indigenous people adversely affected filed a class action suit seeking $28 billion from Chevron for its predecessor’s still un-remediated destruction of flora, fauna, and local water quality. For the last decade, Chevron has vigorously contest this claim, on the grounds that it is no longer liable for Texaco’s environmental misbehavior. Four years ago, an Ecuadoran court granted the Lago Agrio plaintiffs $8.6 billion in damages for their lost crops, farm animals, and oil-related health problems, including increased local cancer rates. On appeal, this award was boosted to $19 billion, a decision then contested by the company before Ecuadoran National Court of Justice, the country’s highest court, which scaled the damages back to $9.5 billion.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs sought to collect their court judgment in other countries where Chevron still operates—like Brazil, Argentina, and Canada. Last December, for example, an appellate court in Ontario ruled that the Ecuadorans could proceed with their suit to seize Chevron assets in Canada, to satisfy the 2011 judgment, as amended. Chevron has opposed these efforts, winning a favorable, tribunal decision from The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration. The company also counter-attacked with a  major PR campaign and related lawsuit in New York City claiming that the original verdict was the product of “coercion, bribery, money laundering, and other misconduct.”

This civil action was filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, a federal law that has been used against organized crime groups in the U.S. In March of this year, a hostile trial judge in Manhattan ruled that Steven Donziger, the brave public interest lawyer representing the people of Lago Agrio, used fraudulent and “corrupt means” to win his case. The company’s top lawyer described all the earlier litigation, favoring the plaintiffs, as “a travesty of justice” and the court’s sanctioning of Donziger as “vindication of what we have been saying all along. Chevron hopes to use the use the court finding against Donziger to shield itself from further overseas collection efforts. Donziger, in turn, accused Chevron of conducting “the most well-funded corporate retaliation campaign in the history of human rights litigation.”


A Visit To Lago Agrio

Back in Ecuador, as Mayor McLaughlin discovered during her visit last Fall, it’s easy to find evidence of past oil drilling and contamination. After conferring with Correa at the presidential palace in Quito, McLaughlin, her small Richmond delegation, and a large international press contingent flew to the hot and humid Lago Agrio rainforest. There, with President Correa, leading the way, they all dipped a hand in one of the hundreds of sludge pits that mar the landscape and contain millions of gallons of toxic waste. “Gayle, Gayle,” Correa said, holding up his own sample of the goo. “This is Chevron. For thirty years, this is Chevron!”

The visitors from California later met with the mayors of Lago Agrio and neighboring Shushufinda. They talked with local residents who recited a litany of health problems in the area, including skin infections, miscarriages, birth defects, and rare cancers. “Texaco—now Chevron—clearly disregarded the environment and simply disposed of its toxic products in the most cost-saving way,” McLaughlin observed. “They just tossed them into the rivers, streams and roads. As a result the indigenous people who drank from and bathed in the rivers, cooked their food and washed their clothes in the water, suffered monumentally and continue to suffer.”

During her visit, which coincided with Richmond’s celebration of “Hispanic Heritage Month,” McLaughlin invited members of the “Union of Affected People,” which is suing Chevron, and their local lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, to visit California for a follow-up community meeting and report back. Back home, she and her supporters in the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) also arranged a public screening of Crude: The Real Price of Oil, a documentary film about the Ecuadoran lawsuit against Chevron.


Ecuadoran Controversies

Many North American cities, like Richmond, have a “sister city’ relationship of some sort. Some of these cross-border ties are formal and others less official. For example, some concerned citizens who are part of the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities or CISPES solidarity networks have maintained ties with several dozen Central American communities since their U.S.-assisted civil wars in the 1980s. Other international partnerships are sponsored by more mainstream civic organizations or municipalities themselves. These tend to be less political, like the lower-profile sister city projects and exchanges that Richmond conducts with counter-parts in Cuba, China, and Japan.

But Richmond stands alone in having forged a controversial connection to an entire South American country—one that is very much based, for the moment, on shared antipathy toward Chevron, one of wealthiest corporations in the world

Not surprisingly, Mayor McLaughlin’s trip to Ecuador and her ties to its president attracted conservative criticism.  Local media outlets aligned with Chevron in Richmond lambasted her 5-day fact-finding trip to Ecuador last Fall, even though it was conducted at Ecuadoran government expense and cost local taxpayers nothing. Chevron itself issued a statement claiming that McLaughlin “would better serve the citizens of Richmond” by staying home and “constructively addressing the city’s most pressing issues, including jobs, education, and public safety.”

Chip Johnson, an influential columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, similarly chided Richmond’s “activist-mayor” for “intertwining her personal politics with the duties and responsibilities of her elected office. “Her latest campaign to hold the company accountable for environmental damage in Ecuador, seems a little bit beyond her job description,” Johnson opined.

Meanwhile, Correa’s own credentials as a defender of indigenous people and their environment have been sharply challenged—from the left–due to his controversial support for oil drilling in another fragile part of his own country. As Latin American Studies professor Marc Becker reported in Z Magazine last year, the Correa government initially tried to protect Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park—and its one trillion barrels worth of oil deposits—from development through a fund-raising initiative involving global donors.

When First World cash contributions and pledges failed to replace the projected revenue that Ecuador would receive from oil extraction, Correa’s top environmental regulator then decided that Petroamazonas, a state-owned company, should be allowed to drill in and around this previously protected ecological reserve.


Political Rifts

According to Becker, “Correa contended that the drilling would only impact one tenth of one percent of the Yasini park, and with modern technology it was possible to drill without the resulting environmental damage resulting from Texaco’s exploration in the 1970s, a claim many environmental activists strenuously dispute.” As a result, reports Becker, this conflict has “placed a popular president on a collision course with social movements that once provided a leading voice against the implementation of neoliberal economic policies and opened up the political space for the election of a leftist government.”

Back in Richmond, where McLaughlin is facing strong Chevron opposition to her own re-election to city government this fall, the Green mayor has been reluctant to criticize her Ecuadoran ally and host. “The history of corruption in Ecuador is incredible, “ she noted after her trip last year. “Former presidents, the government, and citizens were in total servitude to companies like Chevron and they left the country impoverished, underdeveloped, and in deep need of investment.”

If re-elected, along with fellow RPA candidates, McLaughlin pledged to continue her city’s work with Lago Agrio villagers. One component of this on-going solidarity campaign is a “correspondence club,” linking Richmond’s public school children with students in Ecuador.  Another feature will be a website to share videos, poems, letters, and messages of support—from both north and south. “Chevron is not only polluting our air and water,” McLaughlin says. “They’re polluting our politics and legal system. So we’re building an international ‘union of affected people” that can turn our shared pain and suffering into the power to change things.”

Steve Early is a U.S. journalist and labor activist who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress from Monthly Review Press.

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