Cleaning the sour lake - Page 2

Natives of oil-polluted Ecuador call out Chevron

He responded, "Everyone has their own ideas of what it is to be an environmentalist and to protect the environment."

To convey their idea of what it means to be a good corporate citizen, Piaguaje and Grefa busted into the April 25 annual shareholders meeting at Chevron's headquarters in San Ramon, as guests of Soltani and RAN executive director Michael Brune - who both happen to own a little stock in the company.

As three dozen protesters stood outside the meeting holding a banner that read, "Tell shareholders the toxic truth," the usual crowd of well-heeled investors dressed in prim suits and trim neckties mingled inside.

Two individuals looked a little different. Grefa wore a pale green shirt and a thick rope of multicolored beads around his neck. Beside him sat Piaguaje, in a long red tunic with a traditional headdress covering his black hair. During the question period of the meeting, they addressed Chevron board president David O'Reilly.

"Our fight is not for money," Piaguaje, the Secoya tribe leader, said through a translator. "We want you to give back our lives. We want to live in peace, harmoniously with nature. Above all, we want justice. We will continue to fight until we get justice or we will die in our struggle."

"The problems you have there," O'Reilly responded, "you need to take up with the government. There's no credible evidence that Texaco did anything wrong."

The plaintiffs argue that Chevron's $40 million remediation job during the '90s is an implicit admission of some level of guilt.

Chevron says it's being attacked for the size of its purse. At the shareholders meeting, company executives proudly reported the company made $17.1 billion last year, will be investing about $15 billion in oil exploration, and is kicking off 30 new capital projects at the cost of $1 billion apiece.

Should the Ecuadoran plaintiffs prevail, the cost of a real cleanup has been estimated at $6 billion - enough to hinder just half a dozen of Chevron's new oil wells. Chevron contends the figure is grossly inflated. "This $6 billion assessment was made by a consultant hired by the attorneys [on the plaintiffs' side] who only spent three days there," one of Chevron's lawyers, Ricardo Veija, told the Guardian.

"He was there for a few weeks, actually," said the environmental scientist at his side, Sara McMillen, who's consulting for Chevron on the case. She added that the consultants asked other experts to consider the figure. "They actually bust out laughing when they hear that number," she said. "It's more than the cost of Exxon Valdez."

But Fajardo contends the spills in Lago Agrio are larger than the Valdez tanker spill - 30 times larger, in fact (18.5 billion gallons versus 11 million). He said Ecuadorans are more interested in drinking clean water and being treated like humans than squeezing money from Chevron.

Because of the trial, Fajardo was not allowed to attend the shareholders meeting, but we asked what he would say to O'Reilly if they were face-to-face.

"If I could speak with him," Fajardo said in clear, direct words, as if talking to a child who doesn't want to listen, "I would tell him that I think human beings are the same. We have the same rights no matter what part of the world we live in. This company has caused great harm. Instead of spending millions of dollars in defense, they could be investing money in cleanup. It's a question of justice."

Fajardo, his stern brow softening as he considered his words, added, "I'd also tell him I have nothing against him personally. I respect him like I respect every other person." *