In a landmark ruling Feb. 14, a judge in the jungle town of Lago Agrio in Ecuador´s Amazon basin ordered US oil company Chevron Corp. to pay US$8.6 billion in damages after he found that the company failed to clean up millions of gallons of toxic wastewater during its two decades of operations there.
The ruling came after a more than 17-year legal battle in the United States and Ecuador, where the case was moved after a US court threw the suit out in 2003, moving it to Lago Agrio.
Some 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians from the Amazon region along with settlers filed a joint suit against the company, alleging that Texaco, which Chevron took over in 2001, had caused massive pollution to their soil and water, causing irreparable damage to villagers´ health and way of life.
Superior Court Judge Nicolás Zambrano said the company will have to pay double that amount if it does not apologize in the next two weeks.
“This is a great moment for the thousands of Ecuadorians who have waged an epic battle to hold Chevron accountable for one of the worst oil-related disasters on the planet,” said Kevin Koenig, Northern Amazon coordinator at Amazon Watch. “This verdict vindicates what indigenous peoples and local residents have been saying, and suffering from, for decades- that Chevron drilled, dumped, and never looked back.”
“Justice does exist,” said Guillermo Grefa, a Kichwa representative to the Assembly of Affected Communities who brought the class action suit on behalf of 30,000 residents of the Amazon region. “I can now dream of drinking clean water, water with no oil residue, and that the earth will begin to clean and heal.”
California-based Chevron, which earned $19 billion last year, denies the allegations and claims the verdict was fraudulent.
“The Ecuadorian court´s judgment is illegitimate and unenforceable,” said Chevron in a statement. “It is the product of fraud and is contrary to the legitimate scientific evidence. Chevron will appeal this decision in Ecuador and intends to see that justice prevails.”
Chevron has said that the government and state oil company Petroecuador, which took over Texaco´s operations in 1992, had already signed off on the clean-up it said it completed in the area and that Petroecuador was now responsible.
Not only Chevron but the plaintiffs themselves are planning to appeal the ruling. Plaintiffs were seeking damages of up to more than $100 billion.
In a press conference, Luis Yanza, a representative of the victims, said that while he acknowledges the historic nature of the verdict, it pales in comparison to the funds needed to clean up the damage.