Imperium Watch: The Sludgepit Legacy

As protests in Peru quiet down after its legislature revoked trade rules that would have opened the way for logging and mining in the high Amazon country (see Imperium Watch, July 2, 2009), a suit leveled against Texaco-Chevron for polluting air, soil and water in Ecuador is back in the news. The suit, first brought in 1993, is expected to conclude this year. With $27 billion at stake, it's said to be the largest environmental battle in history.

Photos of sludge pits in the area are abundant; in fact, both sides agree that the region is grossly polluted—so polluted that local people charge that the fouling of water and air has caused thousands of deaths from cancer and other diseases. But Chevron says the national oil company Petroecuador, which itself has a dismal environmental record, is responsible for the pollution. The poisoning of air and water here are believed to be among the reasons Peruvians have resisted the prospect of having their Amazon region similarly dirtied.

Chevron did its credibility no service by hiring a company connected to one of its own directors and investors, Samuel Armacost, to examine the cancer claims. A resulting study claimed the numbers of cancer cases put forward by the plaintiffs were high. But when New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo began investigating whether Chevron had given its shareholders timely notification of the potential liability it faced, Armacost's conflict of interest was revealed, together with the fact that the study had only counted cases backed by death certificates, though such documentation is rare among the indigenous cultures in that part of Ecuador.

Former EPA scientist Douglas Beltman, a consultant to the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, told Reuters News Service late in May that the study was "conducted to further the interests of Chevron rather than to better understand the health problems faced by the people."

Reportedly, Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. trade representative, and Clinton White House chief of staff Mack McLarty have been lobbying the Obama administration to rescind Ecuador's right to export products to the U.S. duty-free in order to pressure the Ecuadorian government to withdraw support for the plaintiffs. The case shows that it's not only in the Middle East that our drive to corner oil has skewed our foreign policy.

Author: Stephanie Kraft

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