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It's been many years now since residents of Ecuador's Amazon rain forest filed suit against Texaco. They said that throughout the 1970s and '80s, the American oil company so polluted a swath of northern Ecuador that hundreds of people died of cancer. Texaco has since been taken over by Chevron, which denies the accusations. But a court-appointed expert agrees with many of the plaintiffs' charges. He's assessed damages at $27 billion. Now, a small town judge is preparing to render a decision.

NPR's Juan Forero has this report from Lago Agrio, Ecuador.

JUAN FORERO: Donald Moncayo is an activist who works with the poor farmers and Indian plaintiffs in the case. And his unusual role is taking visitors on what he calls toxic tours. He stops by a huge pool of oily sludge…

Mr. DONALD MONCAYO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: …and sticks a long pole into the muck. He says this is a legacy of Texaco's quarter-century in Ecuador, pollution that affects tens of thousands of people who bathe and drink from rain forest waterways.

Mr. MONCAYO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says drilling mud and other waste that came up during production were dumped in the pit. And he says the toxins here and in hundreds of similar unlined pits leaked into the ground. A court-appointed geologist, Richard Cabrera, and his 14-member scientific team found barium, lead and other heavy metals in those pits. Chevron has argued with his findings. The company wants his report thrown out, saying he's biased toward the plaintiffs.

All this happened in what was once virgin Amazonian jungle, the world's greatest biosphere and an area that still contains huge oil reserves. The plaintiffs say Texaco, in 18 years of full-scale production, also dumped wastewater into rivers and that pipeline breaks spilled 17 million gallons of oil.

Pablo Fajardo is the 36-year-old lawyer leading the plaintiffs' team. He grew up poor here and this is his first legal case.

Mr. PABLO FAJARDO (Attorney): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says his side has proven there was damage, that Chevron was responsible and that the company should pay.

Mr. FAJARDO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Some of the hearings are held out in the jungle at and what's known here as the trial of the century. Chevron doesn't dispute that there's pollution. But Chevron lawyer Diego Larrea says it's Petroecuador, the state oil company, which still pumps here — that's responsible.

Larrea says Texaco adhered to Ecuadorian law. And he says Ecuador's government released the company of legal responsibility after a three-year cleanup a decade ago. In this trial, though, there's little agreement, and the plaintiffs charge Texaco's cleanup was a fraud. The current Ecuadorian government agrees.

The original suit was filed against Texaco in 1993 in a New York court. But Chevron argued that the case be moved here, saying Ecuadorian courts were impartial and professional. In 2003, the trial was moved to a ramshackle court here in Lago Agrio, a nondescript, dusty town near Colombia's lawless frontier.

Judge Juan Nunez says he wants to make a decision before the year is out.

Mr. JUAN NUNEZ (Judge): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Nunez said he feels the pressure on his conscience. And he says he has to carefully consider the arguments both sides have offered - arguments laid out in 145,000 pages of evidence.

Mr. NUNEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Texaco came to Ecuador in 1964. When it left nearly 30 years later, it had extracted 1.5 billion barrels and built Ecuador's oil industry from scratch. The infrastructure is all over. Pipelines run alongside major roads. Pumping stations are located in clearings, carved out of the jungle. And then there are pools of sludge.

The Ecuadorian government says Petroecuador is not blameless. It too dumped wastewater into waterways. But the government here says the state oil company's past practices do not absolve Texaco. They say it was Texaco that was the primary operator for years. They say the pollution left behind is close to where people live and where children go to school.

One school is located in the town of Shushufindi. Wilmo Moreta is a teacher and he describes skin rashes and other ailments he began to suffer when Texaco operated here.

Mr. WILMO MORETA (Teacher): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says he drank water from the Napo River, he bathed in it, he used the water to cook. He now blames oil pollution for his problems.

Cabrera's team, though, goes further, linking 1,401 cancer deaths to oil production and laying most of the blame for the pollution on Texaco. Chevron has countered Cabrera by issuing a battery of studies that show cancer rates here are no higher than in other regions of Ecuador.

James Craig is a Chevron spokesman.

Mr. JAMES CRAIG (Spokesman, Chevron): The Cabrera report is flawed in many ways. And in our view, it's a fraudulent report that we've asked the court to toss out a number of times.

FORERO: He also says the methods Texaco's subsidiary, TexPet, used in Ecuador were common in the United States and still are. Craig says that includes the use of unlined pits to hold sludge.

Mr. CRAIG: To suggest that somehow TexPet was using obsolete technology or substandard methods at the time is a complete falsehood.

FORERO: States like Texas say unlined pits are permitted, but they're for temporary use and that waste should be eventually disposed.

President Rafael Correa squarely sides with the plaintiffs. He says Texaco left a mess behind. His government is even prosecuting two Chevron attorneys and seven former government officials who signed off on the cleanup in 1998.

President RAFAEL CORREA (Ecuador): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says that pools operated by Texaco remain open, with little having been cleaned up.

Craig, the Chevron spokesman, says Correa's comments show the company can't get a fair hearing.

Mr. CRAIG: Unfortunately, the case has deteriorated into a judicial farce, with the media circus put on by the plaintiffs on a regular basis, with the political pressure brought to bear on the court, with the government and political interference in this case.

FORERO: Indeed, Chevron is already talking about a possible appeal should it lose the case. Meanwhile, here in the jungle, residents wonder who will clean up the mess or compensate them for their health problems.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Lago Agrio, Ecuador.

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