Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Historic Moment in Chevron-Ecuador Case: Judge Closes Evidence Phase, Ponders Ruling

Friday, December 17th was a momentous day in the long struggle of the people of Ecuador's Amazon rainforest region ravaged by oil giant Chevron, formerly Texaco.

On Friday, More than 17 years since Ecuadorians filed a lawsuit demanding cleanup of Texaco's oil contamination, the judge declared a close to the evidentiary phase of the trial, paving the way for a judgment in the historic case. Sucumbios Provincial Court Judge Nicolas Zambrano declared autos para sentencia – the end of the evidence phase of the trial and the beginning of his deliberations over the massive case record, some 215,000 pages of relevant documents.

The judge told Reuters on Friday:

"The proof phase has been concluded. I have to read what there is in these proceedings and, based on this criteria, issue the corresponding decision."

A Wall Street Journal article reported what many observers believe, that a ruling from the judge is "expected to be ready in the first quarter of next year." Of course, many predictions have been made over the years, and others close to the case say that a judgment could come anytime between February and next fall. Regardless, it means a judgment is finally coming in the case, despite Chevron's myriad, creative, and cynical attempts to delay a ruling indefinitely.

Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Amazon Defense Coalition, which represents the Ecuadorian communities suing Chevron, released a simple statement:

"This decision should put an end to Chevron's continued abusive litigation tactics intended to perpetually delay the resolution of claims that affect the lives of thousands of innocent people."
Photo by Caroline Bennett

Pablo Fajardo, lead lawyer for some 30,000 indigenous and campesino plaintiffs in Ecuador told Pleiteando.com, "These 17 years of trial have shown sustained damage to those who have seen their water supplies, land and air were polluted by Chevron-Texaco. Many of them have already died of cancer and those who survive live in inhumane conditions. At last I see a light at the end of this dark tunnel."

And Pablo spoke to Amazon Watch's Mitch Anderson in Quito on Friday, just minutes after the judge gave his order. See the video below (sorry about the vertical alignment and black bars on the side – it was shot, inexpertly, on an iPhone):

So now, as Pablo explains, even with the evidentiary phase in the trial over, it's important to continue to keep a spotlight on this case, as Chevron has deployed extraordinary resources to delay and disrupt the trial. With a new scorched earth legal strategy designed by its attack dog lawyers from corporate behemoth law firm Gibson Dunn, they have been successful at creating chaos, and forcing the plaintiffs lawyers to defend themselves against all kinds of accusations. But with a judgment on the horizon, the plaintiffs have also brought on a major new ally in the form of their own corporate law behemoth, Washington DC-based firm Patton Boggs.

Responding to Chevron's well-worn accusations about the case, James Tyrell at Patton Boggs told American lawyer magazine's Michael Goldhaber, "I'm certainly not here to join in any fraudulent effort. We cannot be exposed to liability when we have been hired to do the opposite: to make sure that the final judgment is free of fraud. My mission is to see that a judgment on the merits, warranting international respect, is entered in Ecuador, and, if we win, to enforce it."

Enforce it? Yes, this is critical.

It's important to remember that Chevron left Ecuador in 1992, and no longer has assets there. So, even if all goes well for the Ecuadorians, and a judge awards them billions from Chevron to remediate the company's widespread pollution, and provide clean water and health care infrastructure to affected communities, the plaintiffs will have to take that judgment to the courts in places where Chevron does have assets and lay claim to them there.

That's where big guns like Patton Boggs come in. Unfortunately, that also takes time, while people continue to suffer. Watching this saga unfold over the years, it's hard to imagine Chevron shifting gears. I expect that the company will continue to try to shift the blame, attack the plaintiffs lawyers, try to evade a judgment through arbitration and other "end-runs" around the legal process, and whatever other tricks may still be up their sleeve.

For the sake of the communities living around the company's former oil sites, I hope I'm wrong, and that Chevron's honchos will decide it's time for them to stop fighting this losing and dishonorable battle, and finally do the right thing.

– Han

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Appalachia to the Amazon: The Fight Against Coal and Oil

Amazon Watch's Corporate Campaign Director Mitch Anderson helped lead a delegation of supporters and activists to the Ecuadorian Amazon last week. During the delegation, Mitch witnessed a powerful exchange which he wrote about in an article on Huffington Post. It is re-posted below in its entirety.

Let me tell you about the meeting of two great men.

It was the mid 1950s. A coal mine collapsed in the mountains of West Virginia. Larry Gibson was a young boy. His family had been living in the mountains of Appalachia since the 1700s. Larry's father was a strong man, a coal miner, who could load 50 tons of coal a day on his side. Now, he was out of work with a shattered leg. The coal company refused to pay any benefits. The family could not pay their bills. Their house was seized. They sold their furniture. The family was forced to live for months under a willow tree. Larry saw his father crying, and wondered why the world would make such a strong man cry?

It was 1964. A giant "metal bird" was making a terrible noise above the forest canopy in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Emergildo Criollo was six years old. His people, the Cofan tribe, had been living off the abundance of the rivers and forest of the Amazon for thousands of years. They had never seen a helicopter before. Emergildo had never seen a white man. He was terrified. He ran deep into the forest to hide. The Texaco helicopter landed. The oil workers began clearing the forest and detonating explosives in search of oil. Emergildo saw the machinery, and wondered what would possess men to destroy the Earth?

Coal and oil. A half century has passed.

In that time, Larry has witnessed The Appalachians, the most ancient and biodiverse mountain range in North America, being plundered and obliterated by the coal industry. The forests bulldozed and burned. Holes bored and loaded with explosives. Mountains leveled. 2000 miles of rivers and streams buried with rubble and polluted with coal sludge. Hundreds of unlined open pits filled with toxic waste scattered across once pristine ranges. Lungs blackened. Coal miners killed in collapsed mines. Thousands of premature and avoidable deaths.

In that time, Larry has witnessed The Appalachians, the most ancient and biodiverse mountain range in North America, being plundered and obliterated by the coal industry. The forests bulldozed and burned. Holes bored and loaded with explosives. Mountains leveled. 2000 miles of rivers and streams buried with rubble and polluted with coal sludge. Hundreds of unlined open pits filled with toxic waste scattered across once pristine ranges. Lungs blackened. Coal miners killed in collapsed mines. Thousands of premature and avoidable deaths.

And Emergildo has witnessed the same kind of destruction of his Amazonian homeland. From 1964 to 1990, Texaco (now Chevron) turned the pristine rainforest of northeastern Ecuador into an energy sacrifice zone. Hundreds of unlined open waste pits filled with crude oil, poisonous drilling muds, industrial solvents, acids, and heavy metals, are littered across the ancestral territory of the Cofan people, leaching into the rivers and streams. Over the course of Texaco's operations in Ecuador, the company deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water directly into the waterways, and spilled an estimated 17 million gallons of crude oil into the ecosystem. And now the communities which once thrived off of the pristine rainforest are suffering a public health crisis, including a wave of cancer and birth defects. Their hunting grounds have disappeared. Their traditional medicines are no match for oil contamination.

Why would the world make a such a strong man cry? And what would possess men to destroy the Earth?

Last week, Larry Gibson, who has dedicated his life to fighting the coal industry and preserving Appalachia, left the United States for the first time and traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon to witness the impacts of oil contamination firsthand and meet with community leaders, who have been fighting for decades to force Texaco -- now Chevron -- to clean up their Amazon disaster.

I had the chance to witness the meeting of two great men. It was dusk in the community of Cofan-Dureno. Larry sat on a stump in the middle of the traditional community center of the Cofan. Emergildo spoke: ...the rivers ran black with crude day and night. The flares burned in the forest day and night. And one day I brought my three year old son to bathe in the river. And he drank the water. I took him home and he was vomiting blood. He wouldn't stop vomiting blood. The next day he died.

Larry took a deep breath. He closed his eyes. I heard him say softly, "And for what? Love of money. Profit!" His eyes filled with water, and a tear ran down his wise face.


To support mountain communities in Appalachia, visit:

Mountain Keepers: www.MountainKeepers.org

Coal River Mountain Watch: www.crmw.net

Climate Ground Zero: www.ClimateGroundZero.net

Rainforest Action Network: www.Ran.org

To support communities in Ecuador, visit:

Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign: www.ChevronToxico.com

Rainforest Action Network's Change Chevron campaign: www.ChangeChevron.org

Amazon Defense Coalition: www.TexacoToxico.org/eng

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No Sanction for Chevron Lawyers Over Abusive Questioning in Ecuador Case

As followers of this blog know, American oil giant Chevron has been on a legal rampage, engaging in a scorched earth political, legal, and media strategy in an 11th hour attempt to evade accountability for massive oil pollution the company discharged into the environment in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which continues to sicken and kill people living in the contaminated region. Using abusive and unprecedented tactics, Chevron and its outside lawyers at corporate law behemoth Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher have lately been serving subpoenas to many of the scientific and other experts who have helped the local indigenous people, farmers, and migrants who are suing Chevron for environmental cleanup.

Recently, ecologist Doug Beltman, a consultant scientist for the Ecuadorians, sat for a deposition with Chevron's lawyers from Gibson Dunn. Immediately, Chevron's attack dog attorney Andrea Neuman let loose at Mr. Beltman with a fusillade of questions that were clearly designed to harass and intimidate him. She needled him about his knowledge of various criminal statues and implied that he could be facing criminal prosecution or that his company could be debarred from contracting for the Federal Government, a major client of Mr. Beltman's esteemed environmental consulting firm, Boulder-based Stratus Consulting.

Following the shocking deposition, lawyers for Mr. Beltman and Stratus, as well as lawyers for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, filed a motion for sanctions against Chevron's lawyers over the abusive questioning.

In "Stratus’ and Ecuadorian Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions Against Petitioner Chevron Corporation," they wrote:

"Counsel’s clear intent, right at the beginning of the deposition, was to intimidate the witness by raising the specter of criminal proceedings and government debarment of Stratus. The questioning had no legitimate purpose. It did not concern Mr. Beltman’s knowledge concerning facts relevant to the proceeding. It was blatant, naked intimidation that violated Local Rule 30.3(A)(5)."

A month later on November 15th, Colorado Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty issued a ruling that ordered Neuman and her Gibson Dunn colleagues to refrain from similar kinds of questioning in future proceedings.

The Amazon Defense Coalition, which represents the plaintiffs, issued a press release a few days later, with the headline, "Chevron Lawyers at Gibson Dunn Sanctioned by Federal Court Over Ecuador Case."

I read the transcript of Andrea Neuman's questioning of Doug Beltman. I read the motion for sanctions filed by his lawyers and those of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. I read the ruling from the judge. And I read the ADC's press release. Then, I wrote an article here, also using the word "sanction" to characterize the court's decision.

Well, it seems that Chevron and their hired guns can live with blood on their hands as they diligently work day in and day out to deny justice to the suffering men, women, and children living with the oil giant's pollution in Ecuador. But for the plaintiffs' lawyers to suggest that the magistrate judge had "sanctioned" Ms. Neuman was simply too much to bear.

Shortly after the ADC's press release went out, Gibson Dunn lawyers fired off letters to the plaintiffs' attorneys demanding that they retract the release and that they remove my article. Of course, the Amazon Defense Coalition doesn't control this blog. It's a place for commentary and analysis on Chevron's legacy in Ecuador – and the epic legal battle to hold the company accountable – written by activists with Amazon Watch, like me.

Nonetheless, lawyers from the ADC did drop me a few lines asking me to please remove the post. It seems that Chevron is throwing absolutely everything they have at them and I guess it's enough to have to deal with all the rest of the abusive litigation tactics without worrying about some sort of ridiculous defamation suit.

Finally, Chevron went back to the judge and asked him to clarify the original ruling which read:

Stratus’ and Ecuadorian Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions Against Petitioner Chevron Corporation (Doc. #272, filed 10/14/10) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as stated on the record. Petitioner’s questions in dispute asked during Respondent Beltman’s deposition shall not be repeated in depositions of other witnesses.

This time, the judge writes in a clarifying order:

Petitioner Chevron Corporation’s Motion for Clarification of the Court’s Order (Dkt. 293) on Stratus and Ecuadorian Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions (Dkt. 272) in Light of Plaintiffs’ Misleading Press Release Stating the Court “Sanctioned” Chevron’s Lawyers [filed November 22, 2010; docket #298] is granted as follows. Although the Stratus Respondents and the Ecuadorian Plaintiffs termed their request for relief as a sanction, the Court views its ruling simply as a ruling on an objection to the line of Petitioner’s questioning challenged by the Respondents and Plaintiffs. The Court granted the motion for sanctions to the extent the Court sustained the objection to the line of questioning, but the Court denied the motion to the extent it sought sanctions.

So there it is; as vague as it was, when the judge originally wrote "denied in part" he was referring to the sanctions against Ms. Newman and her colleagues sought by lawyers for Mr. Beltman and the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. So it is not accurate to say that Ms. Neumann was sanctioned by the judge.

Of course, in Ecuador, three Chevron lawyers HAVE been sanctioned – and fined – for abusing court procedures to obstruct and delay the trial. Another two Chevron lawyers are under criminal indictment for lying about a phony remediation in order to secure a release of liability from the government... which, it should be noted, does not apply to the individuals in Ecuador still fighting for cleanup and compensation.

Anyway, whether or not we think the abusive tactics by Chevron's lawyers deposing plaintiffs' consultant Doug Beltman deserve to be sanctioned, the Judge has clarified his order. No sanction. And after hearing from the plaintiffs' lawyers again about the threatening letters, I've updated the previous post (Hey Chevron lawyers, no need to send me a letter, thanks!). Now, Gibson Dunn has even sent out a press release, accusing the plaintiffs' lawyers of "knowingly" disseminating "false and defamatory statements" when in fact the only thing in question – if you read the press releases and court filings – is use of the word "sanction" itself.

But since the judge has clarified his order, I agree that the record should be corrected. And so it is.

Now, if only Chevron and its lawyers would get so worked up about the ongoing epidemic of cancer and spontaneous miscarriages around the company's former oil sites in Ecuador.

Read more about Chevron and their Gibson Dunn lawyers' scorched-earth legal, political, and PR strategy to evade accountability in Ecuador in this briefing paper published by Amazon Watch: UNDERSTANDING RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN THE LANDMARK CHEVRON-ECUADOR CASE

– Han

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