World Watch Magazine: January/ February 2004
Inside Account: A Landmark Trial of ChevronTexaco
Washington, D.C.— A trial against ChevronTexaco in a small-town Ecuadorian court is being seen as a landmark in the history of international justice. The case, which charges that the oil giant dumped toxic waste in the Ecuadorian Amazon and wasted the homelands of thousands of indigenous Amazonians, marks the first time a U.S. corporation has been compelled to account for damages it inflicted in a foreign country, reports Kevin Koenig in the January/February edition of World Watch magazine.
In ChevronTexaco on Trial, Koenig, who has closely tracked the actions of multinational oil corporations for Amazon Watch, recounts the story of the trial and writes that the case is unprecedented in that for the first time, a U.S. court has declared that it will enforce the verdict of a foreign court.
“This lawsuit is essentially putting globalization on trial,“ says Koenig. “A decision against Texaco could signal that the rules of international business are changing where the health of native people, their communities, and the environment are given the same consideration that business interests enjoy.“
Texaco, writes Koenig, saved $4.5 billion over its 21 years of operations in Ecuador by forgoing standard industry practice of re-injecting toxic waste waters that surface during oil extraction back into the deep subsoil formations. Instead, the company dumped up to 4.3 million gallons of toxic waste water directly into the Ecuadorian Amazon—turning an area that once had some of the greatest diversity of plant and animal life in the world into a place laden with pollution, higher-than-expected rates of cancer and miscarriages, and poverty. The company also neglected to clean up numerous pipeline oil spills and left hundreds of toxic waste pits scattered near local communities and streams after its contract expired in 1992.
While the complete human costs may never be known, clean-up of Texaco's former sites and downstream impact are estimated at $6.14 billion.
Modern Conquistadors Plunder On
Brutal, unprovoked attacks on poor nations for their resources are not antiquated events to be read about in history books, writes Ed Ayres in The Hidden Shame of the Global Industrial Economy. Like Cortez' invasion of Mexico for gold in the 16th century, scores of modern countries seeking cell phones, teak furniture, gold jewelry, cheap oil, and other consumer goods and services continue to loot remote communities. In the process, wealthy nations decimate cultures, ruin the environment, and threaten the health of men, women, and children.
“On the surface, the world community condemns unprovoked invasions and agrees that enslaving or killing people for their property is wrong,“ says Ayres. “Yet, there are examples from all over the world where people's homes and lives are being torn apart by mining, drilling, and logging operations.“
Ayres writes that today's events are arguably even more abhorrent than Cortez' since they are often sanctioned by the victims' governments, are hidden from the broad public, and are frequently ignored by the media.
Among the many examples of this neocolonialism is heap-leach gold mining. In this modern, alarming technique, rivers of cyanide are poured on huge piles of ore to extract the gold. In February 2000, a dam holding heap-leach waste at an Australian owned gold mine in Romania broke and dumped 22 million gallons of cyanide into the Tisza River. The disaster was called the worst environmental catastrophe since Chornobyl, yet heap-leach gold mining is on the increase around the world.
Companies employ a number of strategies to avoid resistance to their damaging projects, including offering employment to local, uninformed indigenous people who become dependent on the often-dangerous work. They also pay off local individuals to publicly support projects or woo villagers with dinners and PR campaigns that extol operations while making no mention of likely environmental or health damage.
Several myths, like “Economic growth requires increasing materials and energy consumption,“ encourage the continued extraction of resources on a large scale. Ayres counters that for a truly healthy economy where the environment and people's health and welfare are ensured, mining, drilling, and logging activities must be done on a smaller scale, only in places where permission is granted out of choice rather than compulsion, and in a way that does not cause lasting injury to any human or natural community.
MATTERS OF SCALE: Coal Facts
|Number of late-model cars it takes to generate 10,000 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), the principal constituent of lung-inflaming smog, in one year||500,000|
|Number of average-sized coal-burning power plants it takes to generate the same amount of NOx||1|
|Number of coal-burning electric power plants it took to release 17.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal global-warming gas, in the town of Monroe, Michigan in 1 year||1|
|Number of trees you'd have to cut down or burn to add that amount of CO2 to the atmosphere||761 million|
|Approximate number of Americans who had died in aftermath of the Iraq War, with these deaths becoming a major national political issue, as of late 2003||300|
|Number likely to die each year, according to widely accepted statistical models, as a result of diseases caused by the Monroe, Michigan coal-burning plant—the plant where George Bush chose to give a speech touting his new energy policy giving high priority to building new coal-burning power plants||300|
|Population of Cheshire, Ohio, in 2000||2,500|
|Population of Cheshire in 2003, after a protracted dispute between the citizens and the American Electric Power Co. (AEP) over pollution from the company's coal-burning plant, which resulted in the company's decision to just buy the town rather than try to stop the pollution||12|
|Number of miners killed in coal mine accidents for every 29 million tons of coal produced in the United States (where more than 51,000 people have died in coal mining accidents in Pennsylvania alone)||1|
|Number killed in coal-mining accidents in the Ukraine for every 29 million tons produced||203|
|Tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), the principal cause of acid rain, emitted per year by a typical 1,000 Mwe thermal gas or oil power plant||44 tons|
|Tons of SO2 emitted per year by a coal-burning power plant of equal capacity||30,000 tons|
NEW SECTION! LIFE-CYCLE STUDIES
A new World Watch feature, exploring the environmental and social costs of common consumer items and ways to reduce their impact.
THIS MONTH: The Ubiquitous Plastic Bag. A plastic shopping bag could be the most common consumer item on Earth. Factories around the world churned out four to five trillion bags in 2002. But what happens to these trillions upon trillions of bags after they are used?
OTHER STORIES: ENVIRONMENTAL INTELLIGENCE
Ashcroft Goes After Greenpeace: After Greenpeace activists were arrested for staging an April 2002 protest where they boarded a container ship carrying illegally exported Amazon mahogany from Brazil, the U.S. Department of Justice leveled additional charges against the environmental organization itself. Greenpeace has declared the government's action as punative harassment and points to the recent refusal of the Port of Miami to allow Greenpeace's MV Esperanza to dock and resupply, due to “security concerns.“
After Cancun, It's a New Playing Field: Developing countries demonstrated resolve and organization in challenging the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks that collapsed in Cancun, Mexico, last September. In the past, the talks have been led and dominated by a few industrialized countries even though developing countries represent more than 100 of the 140 WTO nations. Issues of trade barriers and export subsidies that impede the sale of agricultural products from the developing world were one major point of contention between developing and industrialized nations. Meanwhile, discussions on environment-focused trade issues were largely sidelined.
Pesticides Found in Indian Soft Drinks: Many Indian sodas contain detectable amounts of pesticide residues according to a report released in August by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE). CSE studies found that on average, PepsiCo products contained 36 times the amount pesticides permitted by the European Economic Commission. Coco-Cola brands contained 30 times the allowed amount. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have denied the charges and lodged legal complaints against the CSE while an expert committee conducting additional tests for the Delhi High Court confirmed the presence of residues, though in lower concentrations. The CSE has asked the government to examine Indian standards for soft drinks and to implement pesticide limits comparable to other countries.