Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin visited a contaminated area of the Amazon Rainforest on Tuesday and experienced firsthand the extent of the oil and chemical befouled pools, or “piscinas,” Texaco left behind when it abruptly moved all of its assets out of Ecuador in in 1992. Chevron acquired Texaco, and its liabilities, in 2001.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa became aware of McLaughlin in August when she participated in a protest at Chevron’s Richmond refinery to mark the one-year anniversary of a massive fire that was caused by criminal neglect. Chevron plead guilty to six criminal charges and agreed to pay $2 million in fines for the incident that sent a miles long plume of toxic smoke into the air and resulted in 15,000 people going to the hospital, most complaining of respiratory problems.
During her visit to the region of Lago Agrio, McLaughlin met with several indigenous tribe members and other locals who have been affected by Texaco’s dumping of 16 billion gallons of toxic sludge known as “produced water,” which contains a variety of toxins including a carcinogenic compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. According to coalition attorney Pablo Fajardo, there is evidence that cancer rates in the contaminated area are three times higher than in the rest of Ecuador.
Followed by a gaggle of reporters and television cameras, McLaughlin walked carefully along a rough path that ringed a contaminated pool. The 10-foot deep dumping site was camouflaged on the forest floor by a thick layer of leaves and undergrowth. To save money, Texaco purposely did not line an estimated 1,000 similar pools with materials that would have prevented toxins leaching into the many nearby Amazon creeks and rivers that have sustained life for the region’s numerous indigenous tribes for thousands of years.
At the pool’s edge, she reached a gloved hand into the oily muck and withdrew a handful of black, oozing sludge, which she held up for a bank of cameras. “This is a massive environmental disaster that Chevron is turning its back on,” McLaughlin said. “It is criminal that they have the audacity to leave this in place and say they’re not responsible.”
The Amazon Defense Coalition, a group of six tribes indigenous to the Amazon Rainforest , sued Chevron in 2004. An Ecuadorian court ruled in their favor in 2011 and awarded them a settlement of $18 billion. Chevron has refused to pay and has since retaliated by filing racketeering charges against the attorneys who represented the coalition. The trial is set to begin in New York Federal Court on Oct. 15. Various aspects of the case are currently before six official forums, only some of which have the rule of law.
Correa’s invitation to McLaughlin coincided with his kickoff of a massive media campaign called “Las Manos Negras di Chevron” (Chevron's Black Hands) to denounce the environmental damage the multinational company caused. Correa also took a tour of the contaminated pool and held up a clump of congealed toxic sludge for the press. “Not only did they cause this pollution to save a few dollars, but they did not remediate it,” Correa said. “They misled Ecuador and the world. They misled the residents and the Ecuadorian state.”