New Twist In Ecuadorians' Long Pollution Fight With Chevron

Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled that the multibillion-dollar pollution settlement that Ecuadorian residents won against Chevron was fraudulent. His decision follows massive corruption on the part of the lawyer defending the Ecuadorians. It's yet another wrinkle in a litigation saga that has lasted over two decades. NPR's Arun Rath talks to Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld in Ecuador.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

While Alaska studies the long-term effects of oil exposure on fish, in Ecuador, they're worried about the human population. Texaco, now owned by Chevron, was drilling in the town of Lago Agrio until 1992. The residents say the company left behind billions of gallons of toxic waste.

Reporter Adam Klasfeld has been following the case for Courthouse News and is reporting in Ecuador right now. He says the lingering effects of the oil are still obvious.

ADAM KLASFELD: It's very easy to see, and it's very easy to smell. You can smell it in the soils. You can smell it even in the fruits. I spoke with a man, Manuel Salinas. He's a 78-year-old man, and he inspired a 2007 relocation initiative. He says he's had stomach pains for eight years. He talks about that he didn't have money for a wheelchair. And it amazed me that a man who inspired this presidential initiative can't even afford a wheelchair now.

RATH: The mostly indigenous communities there complain of high rates of cancer. But establishing cause and effect in this region is not easy.

KLASFELD: I spoke to one man, Alejandro Soto. His father, brother and niece all died of cancer. His niece died of leukemia, which is traced to a toxin called benzene. Even Chevron acknowledges benzene is linked to cancer. And here's the wrinkle in this. There are terrible medical records within the area. And the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have never been able to provide documentation that this person died of cancer for this reason.

Chevron says that's because there is no link. And the afectados(ph) and their lawyers say that there's - the stories that are all around the region are evidence of that. And there's a battle of statistics, the statistics that you hear from Lago Agrio plaintiffs - a man named Miguel San Sebastian, and his study found elevated rates. Chevron's expert who they funded found opposite.

RATH: The people affected by the oil contamination have come to be known as afectados, the affected. Their court battle with the oil company began in 1993 and continues to this day. The Exxon Valdez case took years to settle, and that only involved one country. In Lago Agrio, things are much more complicated. Because Chevron has virtually no assets in Ecuador, the residents have taken the case international. It has drawn in judges and litigators in Ecuador, the United States, Canada and the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague.

The original offender, Texaco, no longer exists, so the afectados and their lawyers have sued the company that absorbed it, Chevron. They've gone after Chevron's assets in other countries drawing in more lawyers.

KLASFELD: Every small point is being litigated and appealed from dozens of courts around the world. And now, there's litigation at the Hague between the Ecuadorian government and Chevron. This is a case simultaneously being fought on three continents with developments that spiral day by day.

RATH: This month, a U.S. judge overturned a $9.5 billion settlement, not because the afectados had failed to prove the damages caused by the oil, but because of massive corruption on the part of one of the lead lawyers for the afectados. Adam Klasfeld has tracked the reaction across Ecuador.

KLASFELD: The official reaction has been a number of sharp words. President Correa has described the ruling a number of times as imperialism. And he asked essentially what would the U.S. reaction be if an Ecuadorian court of law declared a U.S. verdict fraudulent and illegitimate.

RATH: Klasfeld says that for Chevron, the case has huge implications. Having indigenous communities sue a multinational corporation and actually win could set a dangerous precedent, basically a major disincentive for oil exploration in countries that are thought to have imperfect judicial systems.

And with no resolution in sight, Klasfeld says the only thing that's certain is that Chevron will continue to fight this tooth and nail, and so will the afectados.

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