Thu, Feb 17, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Plaintiffs seek more from Chevron

more to come?The Ecuador case could set a precedent leading to other claims against companies accused of contaminating countries they operate in

Reuters, LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador

Protestors hold photos of people allegedly affected by pollution from dumped toxic waste in Ecuador during a demonstration on Tuesday outside Chevron headquarters in San Ramon, California.

Photo: AFP

Residents of Ecuador’s Amazon region vowed on Tuesday to fight for more after Chevron Corp was told to pay US$8.6 billion for pollution in one of the world’s biggest environmental damages rulings.

The indigenous farmers said the award would not cover cleanup costs and that they plan to press for more money at a provincial court later this week.

“It’s not fair to us because the tribes have suffered a lot,” plaintiff Justino Piaguaje said of Monday’s ruling by Sucumbios provincial court.

“Our families have died, and our rivers have deteriorated,” he said.

Piaguaje is one of 47 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a member of the Secoya indigenous group, which has said there is a higher incidence of cancer in the area named in the case.

Chevron denies responsibility for any damages and has rejected the ruling as illegitimate.

The plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, did not reveal details of the appeal, but his team had been seeking at least US$27 billion and may seek to pursue Chevron assets abroad.

The company has also vowed to appeal the ruling and has claimed fraud on the part of the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

The case has spawned a plethora of international legal actions.

A resolution could take years, and few analysts expect the US oil company to pay anything soon.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa defended the independence of the nation’s courts, despite accusations from Chevron of government interference.

“It was the most important judgment in the history of the country,” he said.

According to the ruling, about US$5.4 billion of the award is to go toward restoring polluted soil, US$1.4 billion for improving health services in affected areas, US$800 million to treat sick people and US$600 million for water supplies.

The ruling also includes a payment of US$860 million for plaintiffs’ lawyers and other trial costs.

Nicolas Zambrano, a judge at the court in the jungle town of Lago Agrio, also said in his ruling that Chevron must apologize within 15 days for the contamination from oil wells dug decades ago, or face a doubling of the damages figure.

Zambrano said both sides have until today to present appeals against his ruling.

Chevron, which made US$19 billion in net profit last year, has no assets in Ecuador and believes it is unlikely ever to pay. It plans to block enforcement in US courts.

The company denies that any health problems in the region are its fault and has said it cleaned up any pollution for which it was responsible.

Despite disagreeing with the size of the award and wondering whether any money would ever be paid, some farmers were nevertheless pleased that Chevron was found guilty.

“Over and above the amount in damages, we believe that Chevron has been sanctioned. This is a hard blow to Chevron and an important step for the indigenous people of Ecuador,” Piaguaje said.

Zambrano’s ruling specifies the damages should be put into a trust fund managed by an independent body.

Investors and the oil industry believe the Ecuador case could set a precedent leading to other large claims against companies that have been accused of contaminating countries where they operate.

“It is the first time that indigenous people have sued a multinational corporation in the country where the crime was committed and won,” environmental group Amazon Watch said.

Piaguaje’s farm produces yucca and corn for his family to eat as well as cocoa, which he sells in the local market. He and other plaintiffs have said that Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2001, polluted their lands and water with faulty drilling practices in the 1970s and 1980s.

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