Cleaning the sour lake

Natives of oil-polluted Ecuador call out Chevron
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>amanda@sfbg.com

Pablo Fajardo, Humberto Piaguaje, and Guillermo Grefa - three natives of Ecuador - recently made a visit to the Bay Area, but not as mere tourists.

"I've come here to inform you, San Francisco, so that you here might know what Chevron does outside the borders of the United States," Fajardo said at a press conference outside City Hall. "They are contributing to the destruction of humanity on a global level."

Fajardo is one of the lead litigators in a 14-year-old civil action lawsuit against Texaco (which was purchased by the Chevron Corp. in 2001) accusing the multinational oil company of business practices that soured the lakes, streams, soil, air, and lives of the residents of Lago Agrio ("sour lake" in Spanish). Texaco was based in this rainforest region for 28 years and operated 343 wells and processing plants that pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil through a 300-mile exposed pipeline over the Andes. The plaintiffs allege that substandard storage and handling of the oil and its toxic byproducts during those productive years have poisoned an area three times the size of Manhattan.

Chevron contends that it has adequately cleaned up 45 sites and anything beyond that is the responsibility of PetroEcuador, a government-owned company with which Texaco had a partnership for use, ownership, and maintenance of the wells.

Chevron is the sixth largest oil company in the world and the richest corporation in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle recently dubbed Chevron its "corporation of the year" after the oil company posted $17 billion in profits in 2006.

But by the end of this year, Chevron may have a new distinction: loser of the largest environmental remediation case ever litigated. Even though legal scholars say it's quite possible the Ecuador court will rule against Chevron, company executives still haven't set aside any money or fully informed shareholders of this potential liability.

A resident of Lago Agrio since he was 14, Fajardo received his law degree through correspondence school coursework just three years ago, and this is the first case he's argued. But he's not alone. His legal team includes New York-based Steve Donziger and a bankroll from Philadelphia's Kohn, Swift and Graf. The recent trip was also supported by the San Francisco organizations Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network.

"This was to put a message to the Bay Area. This is your homegrown oil company," Amazon Watch's executive director, Atossa Soltani, said. "This is an opportunity to hold them accountable. We need to demand they uphold the values of this community."

While in town, Fajardo invited Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to tour one of the 600 unlined oil pits that are seeping sludge into the drinking water of 30,000 Lago Agrians.

"I know that you have close ties to this company," Fajardo wrote in a letter to Schwarzenegger. "I have read that Chevron has donated over $600,000 to your campaigns and inaugurations. I have also read that your former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Chevron. However, I have faith because I know you are a man of the environment. You are making California a leader in the United States on almost every environmental issue. You are what they call a 'green' governor."

The governor is still reviewing the letter, his spokesperson Aaron McLear said, and has not yet decided on taking a field trip to the country. According to an Associated Press article, at an April 24 press conference Schwarzenegger was asked why he turned down an offer to meet the Ecuadorans.