Chevron is accused of polluting the Amazon for 26 years. The only people who’ve paid the price are a human rights lawyer and those whose land was poisoned

What if I told you that a multinational oil company allegedly polluted the Amazon for almost three decades? And that the oil company has spent even more years refusing to accept liability? Or that a US attorney who agreed to represent thousands of Ecuadorian villagers in a lawsuit against that oil company has lost his law license, income, spent hundreds of days under house arrest in New York, and in 2021 was sentenced to six months in prison?

From 1964 to 1990, Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, allegedly spilled more than 16m gallons of crude oil – “80 times more oil than was spilled in BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster”, according to Gizmodo – and 18bn gallons of polluted wastewater in the Amazon rainforest. The pollution allegedly contaminated the ground and waterways with toxic chemicals that the plaintiffs – mostly Indigenous people and poor farmers – say has caused cancer, miscarriages, skin conditions and birth defects. (Chevron has said that Texaco’s operations were “completely in line with the standards of the day” and told the New Yorker, in 2012, that “there is no corroborating evidence” for the health allegations.)

In 1993, Steven Donziger, a recent Harvard law school graduate and human rights attorney, began working on an environmental case on behalf of Ecuadorians allegedly affected by Texaco’s drilling. The case eventually became a 30,000-person class action lawsuit against Texaco in New York federal court.

Texaco/Chevron did not dispute that pollution occurred, and “freely admits that large sludge pits still dot the Amazon”, the New Yorker reported. The company argued that the Ecuadorian government released it from liability after paying for an earlier cleanup, and that Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, was responsible for the remaining damage. The plaintiffs argued that the earlier cleanup was woefully insufficient; that Texaco, not Petroecuador, directed actual operations in the area; and that Chevron’s earlier agreement with the government of Ecuador did not bar lawsuits by individuals. (The government of Ecuador also disagrees with Chevron’s claims.)

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