Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Launch of Chevron's New PR Blitz Overshadowed by Hoax & Hijinks; Toxic Legacy in Ecuador Highlighted

Allow me to let the lead sentence in today's Associated Press article set the stage:

Activists seeking to condemn Chevron Corp.'s environmental record have turned to guerrilla-style tactics, grabbing attention with an online hoax that pre-empted a corporate advertising campaign.

Along with our allies at Rainforest Action Network, we worked with corporate crime-fighting pranksters The Yes Men to make sure that this week's launch of Chevron's new 'We Agree' ad campaign would NOT go unchallenged.

As The Yes Men explain in a press release that went out early Tuesday:

The activists' pre-emptive campaign began early Monday with a press release from a spoof Chevron domain, which launched the fake “We Agree” site hours before the real Chevron could launch its own, real campaign. The fake “We Agree” site featured four “improved” advertisements..."

The parody ads and ad copy on the site highlight Chevron's environmental and social abuses, and feature photos of Chevron's contamination in Ecuador, and victims who are part of the ongoing, valiant effort to hold Chevron accountable.

As Ecuadorian indigenous leader Emergildo Criollo said in response to Chevron's new ad blitz:

"Instead of spending millions of dollars on advertising to improve its image, Chevron should clean up the toxic waste pits that they abandoned, and pay to care for people with cancer that the contamination has caused."
We Agree.

And our hijinks around this "textbook example of greenwashing," as I told the AP, ARE turning the spotlight back to the very concerns that Chevron's deceptive advertising is designed to co-opt and conceal. Now you, dear reader, can help keep Chevron in the hot seat and it will only take a few seconds...

After reporting on our efforts, The Washington Post is conducting a poll, asking: What do you think of Chevron's new 'We Agree' ad campaign?


Did you vote?


Okay, then enjoy reading more on this latest effort to use just the right amount of subterfuge to help Chevron with a little much-needed "truth in advertising."

Fast Company was the first media outlet to fall (hook line, and sinker) for the hoax– here's an excerpt from the updated version of its article:

Yes Men's version involved an ad with a smiling elderly indigenous man wearing a bandana, with the words "OIL COMPANIES SHOULD CLEAN UP THEIR MESSES," along with a red stamp that reads "We Agree"--followed by the signatures of Chevron higher-ups. The ad was supposed to be a reference to a years-long lawsuit in Ecuador, where Chevron is accused of being responsible for $27 billion of oil pollution clean-up costs. Chevron.com refers to the Ecuadorian lawsuit as "a meritless case"; according to the Christian Science Monitor, Chevron has taken out quarter-page newspaper ads with defensive headlines like "the fraud of the century." Nevertheless, Ecuadorians appeared to be the heroes of Chevron's new ad campaign. It was fake, we now know.
And here are links to a bunch of the coverage so far – from mainstream media and wire stories to ad industry and energy outlets to political blogs. I'll highlight a few of my favorite headlines...

The New York Times
The Washington Post
Associated Press: 'Activists parody Chevron ad campaign in hoax, seeking to spotlight concerns'
Agence France Press [updated version, after hoax was revealed]
Agence France Presse [original, 'archived' version]
Yahoo! News' The Upshot: 'New Chevron ‘We Agree’ ad campaign hijacked by anti-corporate tricksters'
KGO-TV Channel 7, ABC News in the Bay Area
BNET - CBS Interactive Business Network: 'Chevron Punk’d! How the Big Oil Company Lost Control of Its Message '
San Francisco Business Times
O'Dwyer's (Public Relations blog): 'Chevron Should Adopt Goals of Spoof PR Push'

As many outlets above reported, Chevron spends nearly $100 million a year in advertising (and I don't think that counts their army of highly-paid PR spinmasters) so it's very unlikely they're going to turn back from the investment the company's already made in their 'We Agree' campaign. But this was merely the quick-n-dirty opening salvo from a handful of people who are sick of Chevron treating them like idiots.

And as more and more people see their ads, I think we'll be joined by a whole lot of people that feel the same way. Creative, funny, intelligent, forward-looking people who I suspect are going to make this first little hoax seem like an amateurish warm-up.

– Han

Han Shan is the Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Breaking news: “Toxic sludge boss” brought to justice!

Our allies at Rainforest Action Network's Change Chevron team posted a great article on their blog yesterday; I'm reposting it in its entirety below. Please read, and share...
–Han, Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

A pipe to drain crude contamination from open toxic pools into waterways near Lago Agrio, Ecuador. The toxic pools in the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest were abandoned by Texaco (now Chevron) after oil drilling operations ended in 1990 and were never remediated. Photo by Caroline Bennett

It seems, at times, as if corporate executives operate with near-impunity, rarely being held accountable for polluting the planet in their quest for profits. But today, at least one exec is behind bars for contributing to the deaths of several people who were inundated by millions of gallons of toxic sludge that his company had failed to dispose of properly.

No, I’m not talking about Chevron CEO John Watson, though I certainly could (and probably should) be. Watson is still at large, enjoying his impunity while 30,000 Ecuadoreans continue to suffer the effects of the 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste his company refuses to clean up in the rainforests of Ecuador.

I’m actually talking about Zoltan Bakonyi, the managing director of MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, which was responsible for a flood of toxic sludge that killed eight people in Hungary last week.

The similarities between what happened in Hungary and the ongoing catastrophe in Ecuador are striking. Both are entirely man-made disasters that should never have happened, both are the result of corporate negligence, and both point out how environmentally unsustainable industries externalize the costs of their dirty businesses onto those communities unfortunate enough to be adjacent to their polluting operations.

There are plenty of differences between the two cases, as well. For one thing, the toxic sludge from MAL Rt.’s aluminum plant only claimed eight lives and seems to be mostly contained at this point, whereas Chevron’s toxic oil waste has so far led to some 1,400 deaths, and could lead to 10,000 more by 2080 even if Chevron cleans up its mess immediately — which of course the company still refuses to do altogether.

The biggest difference is, of course, the fact that MAL Rt. managing director Zoltan Bakonyi has been detained by Hungarian authorities and is being held responsible, while John Watson is still free, still polluting, and still not taking responsibility for the damage his company’s pollution has caused.

The Change Chevron team leaves their cleaning supplies at Chevron CEO John Watson's house. Photo: Rainforest Action Network

Yesterday, as part of 350.org’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party, we got to work cleaning up Chevron stations in an attempt to urge the company to do the same in Ecuador. At the end of the day, we dropped off our cleaning supplies at Watson’s home in Lafayette, CA (as you can see in the photo above) in the hopes that he might put them to use some time soon. If you want to help, you can go to Chevron’s Facebook page and tell Watson and Chevron to get to work cleaning up Ecuador right now.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chevron's Toxic Waste Pits in Ecuador: Designed to Pollute

A couple of months ago, I traveled with my Amazon Watch colleagues Mitch and Kevin into the Ecuadorian Amazon, where we met up with our friend Donald, an activist with the Amazon Defense Coalition. In this video, Mitch and Donald illustrate Chevron's toxic legacy in Ecuador, in the form of one abandoned toxic waste pit (among hundreds of others) that is literally designed to pollute. Watch it now:

UPDATE: After I uploaded the video to Youtube but before I'd posted it anywhere, someone over at Current.com posted it and it has started a discussion... go join in.

At each of the 356 oil wells that Chevron (then, of course, in the form of Chevron subsidiary Texaco) drilled throughout the Amazon rainforest region of Ecuador during its operations over nearly three decades, the company carved out several pits to hold waste products from the drilling process.

These kinds of pits are meant to be temporary, but Chevron abandoned more than 900 pits, littered across the rainforest floor, filled with a sludge of crude and toxic chemicals, that continue to leach into soil as well as groundwater relied upon by thousands of local residents for drinking and bathing.

Douglas Beltman, an expert on oil contamination and former ecologist with the Superfund program of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, explains:

"'Reserve pits' have been used to temporarily store drilling fluids and other wastes, such as unrecovered or spilled oil, before the wastes are treated and disposed of... Pits should not be covered with oil and should be closed when the well is completed."

When he says "when the well is completed," he just means once the oil well is drilled, and is not suggesting waiting until after the oil well has been pumped dry years or decades later.

By using unlined pits, Texaco put the health of Ecuadorian citizens and their environment at risk in order to save money. This cold economic rationale is demonstrated by the conclusion of a Texaco official in a 1980 internal memo:

"...the current [unlined] pits are necessary for efficient and economical operations of our drilling ... operations. The total cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be $4,197,958... It is recommended that the pits neither be lined or filled."

So what has been the impact of the company's rationale?

A recent study of the number of excess cancer deaths associated with living in or near the oil fields in the Oriente estimates that nearly 10,000 people could succumb to oil-related cancer by 2080, even if Chevron begins cleaning up its contamination in 2011 and finishes by 2020.

Angel Toala is but one person who has died as a result of Texaco's greedy calculus and Chevron's years of delay and deception about its ultimate responsibility to clean up its life-threatening toxic mess in the Amazon.

Angel Toala at his home in Shushufindi shortly before succumbing to stomach cancer. Photo by Lou Dematteis. Angel's wife Luz Maria Martin:

I don’t think the oil company (Texaco) worried if they contaminated the water. We farmers didn't realize the water was contaminated, and certainly it was not in the oil company’s interest to tell us that.
Read the rest of the profile of Luz & Angel, from a post here last March.

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ecuador Oil Pollution Expert's Truthful Testimony Makes Chevron Lawyers Freak Out in Deposition

The Ecuadorian plaintiffs demanding Chevron clean up its toxic mess in Ecuador filed a legal memorandum last week containing some priceless truth-telling that Chevron's lawyers tried to stop, including the opinion of a leading authority on oil field contamination that Chevron dumped toxic liquids into the environment amounting to "30 times the quantity or the volume of crude that was spilled in the Exxon-Valdez disaster."

An Amazon Defense Coalition press release issued today explains:

One of Chevron's lawyers at the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher flew into a panic during a recent deposition when an American consulting expert began to testify about the massive quantities of toxins dumped by the oil giant in Ecuador, where Chevron faces a multi-billion dollar legal liability, according to court papers filed recently.

It goes on to further explain why an American expert was testifying at a deposition:

Faced with overwhelming scientific evidence of the contamination in Ecuador, Chevron recently returned to U.S. courts to seek discovery of 23 Americans associated with the case. This led to the deposition in San Diego on Sept. 10 of the American consulting expert, William Powers.

Last month, a judge permitted Chevron's lawyers to depose Powers, a petroleum engineer and environmental expert. In San Diego, on September 10th, Powers was deposed by Andrea Neuman, one of Chevron's lawyers from corporate law behemoth Gibson Dunn. Also present was a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Andrew Wilson.

After several hours, Ms. Neuman wrapped up her deposition, and Mr. Wilson indicated that he would like to cross-examine Mr. Powers for a few minutes, a standard practice. At which point, apparently, Ms. Neumann and her Gibson Dunn colleagues FREAKED OUT.

First, Ms. Neuman said the office was closing. Then a colleague said they hadn't been notified of the lawyer's intention to question Mr. Powers, which the plaintiffs called "remarkable" since it's standard for depositions to conclude with a cross-examination. Then they said the cameraman shooting video of the deposition had to pack up. Finally, they claimed "we literally have to leave the building."

But as the plaintiffs recount in their Sept. 28th legal filing:

"Mr. Wilson insisted on fifteen minutes of cross-examination, during which the building did not shut down, the office did not close, the cameraman did not have to pack up, and no one had to leave the building."

At which point, Mr. Powers, a leading authority on oil field contamination, simply answered some questions, revealing the devastating truth about Chevron's legacy in Ecuador that the company has tried so hard to conceal.

Photo by Lou Dematteis, from the book Crude Reflections.

More from the legal filing:

Q:  Now, when Chevron-Texaco designed its pits in the Ecuadorian Amazon, what design did it use? 

Powers: Dug a hole in the dirt and deposited the drilling muds in the unlined hole.

Q: And if Chevron-Texaco was designing those pits in the United States, would it have been able to dig a pit in the – and put in the drilling muds as you described?

Powers: No.

Q: What's the consequence of Chevron's design of its pits in the Lago Agrio concession?

Powers: Two consequences: the leeching of the chemicals into the ground, and ultimately into the ground water; and the overflow of the pits due to lack of maintenance and rain water and overflowing directly into the drainage channels surrounding that pit.

Q: And what's the basis for your conclusions concerning the Chevron-Texaco's pits?

Powers: Having viewed the pits and reviewed the nature of how those pits were designed, utilized, and the fact that – it is uncontested that the pits were left with drilling mud in them.

Q: And when Chevron developed the oil field in Ecuador, did it do so in conformity with standards for treatment of production water that were in place in the United States at the time that it was building its infrastructure in Ecuador?

Powers: No.

Q: Can you describe the ways in which Chevron's Ecuadorian concession fell below standards it would have been required to meet if that field were in the United States?

Powers: Based on the salinity and the produced water from the field, the company would have been required to reinject that water into a subsurface formation.  Could not have operated that oil field or produced a single barrel of oil without having that produced water injection system operational.

Q: By failing to reinject production water in the Lago Agrio concession, what impact did that have on the environment in Lago Agrio?

Powers: It contaminated the surface water at the points where it was injected, not only with the high salinity of the produced water in an environment that has almost no natural salinity, but the trace contaminants of heavy metals and oil also contributed to the generalized contamination of that surface water.

Q: If you include the produced water in your comparison between the discharge into the environment from Chevron's Lago Agrio concession, when you compare that to the Exxon-Valdez oil discharge from that catastrophe, how would you compare them?

Powers:  Both the produced water and the crude oil are toxic. The – you can argue about the relative toxicity of them both. But the amount of toxic liquids that should not have been in the environment in Ecuador was at least 30 times the quantity or the volume of crude that was spilled in the Exxon-Valdez disaster.

– Han

Han Shan is coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign