US Supreme Court Declines to Hear Chevron Pollution Case

Steven Donziger, the lawyer representing affected indigenous communities in Ecuador, calls this “the probably the most outrageous act of industrial pollution in history related to oil.”

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Story Transcript

D. Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Ecuadorean villagers seeking to collect in the United States on a $9.5 billion judgment rendered six years ago by the courts of Ecuador.

The plaintiffs persuaded the Ecuadorean courts that from 1964 to 1992, Texaco, which was later purchased by Chevron, dumped polluted waste water into open pits across vast swaths of Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorean jungle, contaminating the water used by locals. Locals call the area the “Amazon Chernobyl,” and indigenous tribes have seen their cultures decimated by the pollution.

The environmental judgment against Chevron in Ecuador is thought to be the highest ever to emerge from a court, but Chevron is doing everything it can to block collection. The decision by America’s top court means that a ruling against the plaintiffs that was rendered by U.S. district judge, Louis Kaplan, will stand. Judge Kaplan cited what he called “a parade of corruption actions by plaintiff’s representatives to obtain the judgment in Ecuador.”

After having sold off its assets in Ecuador during the trial there, Chevron is now suing the villagers and their lawyers in the United States as part of its own retaliation campaign. The company has spent an estimated $2 billion and used 2,000 lawyers to attack Steven Donziger, who was acting for the plaintiffs, and to attack his clients as well.

Joining us today to discuss this matter is Steven Donziger. Steven is a human rights attorney based in New York who has been representing the indigenous and farmer communities in the Chevron litigation for over two decades. Thank you for joining us, Steve.

Steve Donziger: It’s great to be here.

D. Lascaris: Steve, before we talk about the enforcement proceedings in the United States, could you summarize for us the evidence that was put before the courts of Ecuador in support of the plaintiffs’ claims?

Steve Donziger: Yeah, I’m happy to. So, the evidence of environmental contamination is not even disputed by Chevron. Basically, starting the in the 1960s, Chevron’s predecessor company, Texaco, went into Ecuador. They built over 400 wells across a 1500 square mile territory, and they used sub-standard oil extraction methods.

In a nutshell, they did a couple of things that were very, very bad. Number one is they dumped, on a systematic basis, on a daily basis, on a 24-7 basis for years and years, millions of gallons of benzine-laced toxic water of production into streams and rivers where the indigenous groups in the region were living, and where they relied on these waterways for their sustenance, for their water for bathing and for fishing.

D. Lascaris: And this is highly carcinogenic, I understand.

Steve Donziger: Benzine is probably one of the most carcinogenic, life-threatening substances. If you get exposed to one in a billion parts, something that has one in a billion parts benzine, you can die. Yes, it is very … it’s a killer, killer chemical.

So this stuff was being dumped into rivers that people were relying on without any warning, without any notification, without any treatment. And over time, in this very isolated region of the jungle the local inhabitants began to slowly die off from cancers and other oil-related diseases.

In addition, the company built roughly 1,000 toxic waste pits. These were large pits, some as large as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. They were gouged out of the jungle for … next to the 400 well sites. All from three, four, five of these pits on one site. And when Chevron would drill down into the ground thousands of feet under and they would use other man-made chemicals that were also harmful and some carcinogenic to dislodge the rock, all of that gook and the heavy metals would have to be put somewhere and disposed of. And rather than doing it properly, they just built these pits and dumped the oil sludge into the pit. The pits were unlined. They were often built on high terrain such that pipes could be run from the sides so the contents could flow into streams and rivers.

In our opinion, this was industrial homicide done intentionally by an American oil company in a part of the world where it had just assumed it would never get caught. All of that evidence was presented to Ecuador’s courts in the form of more than 100 technical evidentiary reports, all of which showed massive amounts of highly harmful toxins in the environment, as well as reports about high cancer rates that drew a correlation between the toxic oil contamination and the health problems.

The upshot is all of this was presented. The local communities, despite massive attempts to sabotage the trial by Chevron, won the case. It was affirmed unanimously on appeal by Ecuador’s supreme court. Chevron refuses to pay the judgment. They sold off all their assets in Ecuador. In our opinion they behaved unethically and in bad faith for years and years. They really treated the people in Ecuador very, very poorly like they’re second, third class citizens, even sub-human. And here we are today chasing them around the world. Now we’re in Canada and Brazil, to force them to pay the Ecuador judgment. Our view is that if they don’t pay it, we’re going to seize their assets in these countries, liquidate them, and use the money to satisfy the judgment so the people of Ecuador can get the cleanup they deserve, and can live in an environment free of oil contamination.

This is, and to sum up, probably the most outrageous act of industrial pollution in world history related to oil. And it’s a shame that very few people know about it.

D. Lascaris: And before we get to the enforcement proceedings in Canada and Brazil, I want to talk about Judge Louis Kaplan’s rationale for dismissing the proceeding.

As I indicated at the outset, he came to the conclusion – despite the very extensive and compelling body of evidence that you’ve described and was put before the courts of Ecuador, that the judgment was obtained by fraud. And I understand that Chevron’s star witness was a former Ecuadorean judge by the name of Alberto Guerra. And he claimed that the plaintiffs offered him a kickback to ghost write a ruling in their favor.

How do you respond, in essence, to the arguments articulated by Judge Kaplan? And what do you have to say in particular about Chevron’s star witness?

Steve Donziger: Well in a nutshell, Chevron’s star witness lied about me and others to help Chevron after being paid by the company more than $2 million in cash and benefits. I mean, this is probably the most outrageous example of evidentiary fabrication before a U.S. court in a long time.

And unfortunately for Chevron, the only evidence they have that a bribe of the Ecuadoran judge occurred – and this actually did not happen; I would never bribe a judge, I did not bribe a judge, that’s how I operate or any lawyer should operate – but the only evidence they have is this guy’s testimony, to whom they paid $2 million to. They essentially bribed him to lie.

And what did they give him? They gave him a bunch of money, including $38,000 in cash out of a suitcase. They negotiated with him in Chicago; they flew him up to Chicago where his kids were living. And while they were negotiating the content of his testimony, this story that he was making up, he kept asking for more money. He’d say things like, “Money talks but gold screams. Can you add a few more zeroes to that offer, please?” It was all just a money play for Guerra, and for Chevron it was their way to try to fabricate evidence of fraud that they felt they could use to taint the valid judgment obtained based on all this voluminous scientific evidence and their own admissions that proves that they engaged in this massive industrial homicide.

So I know it might be a stretch, maybe, for some people to believe that a U.S. federal judge would accept this kind of evidence, but it happened. And the irony is, after the end of the … after Kaplan made his ruling – and the trial had none of the procedural flaws; the judge was clearly biased in favor of Chevron – after the end of his ruling, this witness, Guerra, was cross-examined in a separate proceeding under oath in an international arbitration action, and he admitted to having lied repeatedly before the Kaplan.

And separately, a forensic examination of the trial judge’s computer in Ecuador proved he was lying because it showed that the trial judge wrote the judgment on his own office computer, opening a Word document and saving it over 400 times. Whereas Guerra testified our team wrote the judgment, gave it to the judge on a flash drive, which is a lie. So Kaplan’s decision is based on a bunch of lies that were fabricated by Chevron, by paying a witness, bribing a witness to put this information before the judge. Unfortunately, the appellate courts in the United States have completely turned a blind eye to this judicial corruption by Chevron.

So therefore, we have this crazy decision that I think has zero credibility, and will not help Chevron at all in Canada and Brazil. In fact, will probably hurt them once the courts get into these issues and see that they fabricated evidence. It’s only going to backfire against them, and I don’t think it’s going to help them in the least as we go forward.

D. Lascaris: So, let’s talk … in the time we have left, I just want to focus on Canada. I know you’re also pursuing … the plaintiffs are also pursuing efforts in Brazil, but let’s focus on Canada. What briefly has happened there and what are the next steps in that attempt to collect on this judgment?

Steve Donziger: Couple of things. I mean, one is we think that Chevron is extremely vulnerable in Canada. They’re doing the same thing there they did in Ecuador, which is they’re trying to throw sands into the gears of justice and slow down the process so they don’t have pay the judgment, or if they do, they pay it as far down the road as possible.

The upshot is, we’re going to have a trial in Canada. Chevron will be able to put its evidence that it claims defends itself in Ecuador on the issue of fraud. They cannot re litigate the Ecuador case in Canada, but they can try to argue that the judgment is illegitimate. And they’ll use Kaplan’s racketeering decision, again based on their fabricated evidence, to try to argue this, but we think that’s going to backfire. There’s some pre-trial legal issues that are still being resolved, but we expect to be in trial against Chevron and its Canadian subsidiary in the year 2019. And it’s quite probable that this entire issue, all these issues, are going to be resolved in Canada at that time.

D. Lascaris: Well, thank you very much for speaking to us, Steven. We’ll certainly follow this story. And this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to human rights lawyer, Steven Donziger, about the epic Chevron litigation brought by Ecuadorean villagers. Thank you for joining us, Steve.

Steve Donziger: Thank you.

D. Lascaris: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.