The Amazonian Chernobyl
When discussing the topic of oil spills and disasters, larger-scale incidents such as Mexico’s Ixtoc 1 spill of 1979, or BP’s Deepwater Horizon of 2010 typically come up in conversations. These cases are often the result of technical mishaps or simple human error; a single mistake in an instance with countless consequences. But what happens when it’s not a mistake?
In 1964, American oil company ChevronTexaco became one of the first to land in Ecuador’s Oriente region. The country is home to the 17th most biodiverse region in the world and houses several indigenous groups that rely on the natural resources of the local rainforest. Thanks to ChevronTexaco’s persistent malpractice and negligence over the course of 3 decades, all of this has changed. A total of 61 billion litres of toxic waste have been dumped, 64 million litres of crude oil spilled and 916 waste pits left abandoned, affecting nearly 4000km2 of land. The disaster has coined the term the “Chernobyl of the Amazon” because of these permanent and devastating effects on the surrounding environment and public health.
It’s important to note Ecuador’s turbulent economic climate and lack of protective policies prior to ChevronTexaco’s oil extractions. An economic crash in the 1960s pushed the government to seek foreign investments while overhauling hydrocarbon laws and taxes in order to attract such companies and investors. Moreover, Ecuador is not internationally recognized as an intermediate producer of oil meaning that its policies don’t influence the international industry enough to protect them from the pressures of the global market. Ecuador was in a position where its vulnerabilities could be capitalized on by foreign corporations, such as ChevronTexaco, because its policies did not effectively protect them from exploitation.
It wasn’t even until 1973 when ChevronTexaco finally signed a contract with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Energy and Mines, in which the company agreed to protect the surrounding environment while operating within the country. Despite this agreement, the company moved forward with their harmful practices. Human rights lawyer Steven Donziger explains what should be expected of companies during a standard oil extraction process:
“When oil is extracted from a well, it produces two fundamental parts. One is the commercially marketable crude and the other is “water of formation” that includes carcinogenic toxins such as benzene, toluene, and arsenic. To minimize impact on the environment and surrounding
populations, it has been the custom of the oil industry for at least one-half century to separate the water of formation from the marketable crude and dispose of it by “re-injecting” it back into wells, sometimes as deep as thousands of feet underground. Properly re-injected, these powerful toxins have little or no environmental impact. Not to re-inject has been considered extremely hazardous. For example, the state of Texas outlawed the practice of dumping water of formation in 1919.”
Rather than re-injecting the toxic waste, ChevronTexaco chose to dump it into unlined pits in the surrounding Amazon rainforest. Pipes were then added to these pits to allow any overflow to escape into surrounding rivers and streams, a crucial source of water for local indigenous groups.
A plethora of health issues now plague these local communities, including dermatitis, fatigue, skin mycosis, digestive issues and more. It was also discovered that women living in the Oriente region were 2.5 times more likely to miscarry, and there were also higher rates of cancer among those living in the area. 57 years after their operations first began, ChevronTexaco maintains denial of any responsibility for the consequences. The company Chevron refuses to accept having any role in Ecuador and instead shifts the blame towards Texaco, despite the two companies merging in 2000.
Furthermore, the Ecuadorian government was in the dark regarding the company’s methods and couldn’t effectively respond to the disaster until 1990, when officials were finally notified of studies regarding the pollution caused by ChevronTexaco. It took an additional 2 years before the initiation of environmental impact assessments on the area.
Similar to ChevronTexaco’s response to the ongoing disaster at the time, the company took little to no action when attempting to restore the damage they had caused. Between 1990-1998, some of the toxic waste pits were simply covered with dirt as a part of ChevronTexaco’s remediation, without any tests, treatments, or removal of the waste. In other sites where crude oil had been spilled, the polluted soil and flora was gathered and then buried in (additional) unlined holes in the ground. ChevronTexaco had originally agreed to treat a minimum of 37.5% of the contaminated sites, yet they manged to only fulfil a whopping 16% of this agreement.
The first lawsuit against the company was filed in 1993 with the help of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger. After being initially thrown out of court several times, the lawsuit finally came to a close in 2011 when ChevronTexaco was found guilty and ordered to pay $9 billion to Ecuador for remediations. However, the company have refused to pay the damages and instead accused Donziger of misconduct and fraud, triggering his house arrest in August 2019. It wasn’t until 787 days later, in September of 2021, that the United Nations would rule his detention illegal and request that the United States release him. Regardless of all the setbacks and lack of accountability from ChevronTexaco, Donziger and the Ecuadorian public remain determined to bring awareness and justice to one of the largest oil disasters in history.