Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and many local activists rallied in Civic Center Plaza Tuesday to protest the opening of Chevron’s civil trial against dozens of Ecuadorians.
In 2011, an Ecuadorian court ruled in favor of thousands of Ecuadorian villagers who claimed that Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001, was responsible for contaminating their water supply. The judge awarded $18 billion to the plaintiffs living in the Lago Agrio region.
The judgment is now being contested by Chevron, which claims that the plaintiffs’ lawyers committed fraud during the trial. According to Chevron’s website, the Ecuadorians’ lawyers were “ falsifying data in multiple instances, paying experts to ghostwrite exaggerated environmental-impact assessments, and bribing the judge who allowed the plaintiffs’ lawyers to write the actual judgment issued against Chevron.”
Activists at the rally called Chevron’s charges “retaliatory” and unfair. “It’s really outrageous that a six-week trial against the people who have suffered from Chevron is beginning today,” said Leila Salazar-Lopez, program director at Amazon Watch. “These people have suffered enough, and now they have to face Chevron’s accusations of fraud.”
McLaughlin recently journeyed to Ecuador to see firsthand the effects of oil extraction on the tribal people in the Amazon rainforest.
“I personally witnessed the abuses and contamination of the rainforest perpetrated by Texaco, now Chevron,” McLaughlin said. “Crude oil was dumped in the rivers and streams, and on the roads. As there is no running water in the region, so families were forced to drink, bath and cook with poisoned water from streams and rivers.”
Chevron disputes these claims. The company says it has reached out twice to McLaughlin to explain the facts of the situation with Ecuador, but has received no response. “It is unfortunate for the citizens of Richmond that their Mayor continues to align herself with unscrupulous [Ecuadorian] plaintiffs’ lawyers and their hedge fund backers rather than focusing on Richmond’s pressing issues,” Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson wrote in an email.
Mayor McLaughlin said it’s important for people in Richmond to stand in solidarity with the Ecuadorians because Chevron’s actions against Ecuador have implications for all people living in the oil company’s backyard.
Richmond is suing Chevron for damages and safety violations related to its refinery fire last August, she said. “We are simply asking them to stop running from their responsibility and do the right thing,” she said. “[And to] stop trying to divert attention from the damage they have caused by talking about their social investments in communities. It does not excuse their hostile and retaliatory behavior.”
Chevron filed fraud and extortion charges against 47 of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Mayor McLaughlin criticized Chevron’s charges. “This type of trial is generally reserved to prosecute the mafia,” said McLaughlin, flanked by activists holding protest signs. “But in this case, it’s against the folks who won the $18 billion court verdict against Chevron for polluting the rainforest.”
The activists, holding pictures of Ecuadorian villagers who were involved in the original lawsuit, nodded and hummed in agreement.
“We have friends, some of them in these pictures, who have lost their children,” Salazar-Lopez said.
Chevron says it merged with Texaco long after the company had ceased operations in Ecuador and cleaned up its contamination.
But Richmond community activist Doria Robinson, who traveled with McLaughlin to Ecuador, said Chevron is still responsible.
“This is really about corporate responsibility,” she said. “As a corporation, if you acquire another corporation, you take on their responsibilities.”
Robinson said she witnessed the toxic water that Chevron claims has been cleaned up. On her trip to the “internationally treasured” Amazon rainforest, she remembers approaching a pit filled with water. The air reeked of petroleum, she said, as she watched locals dip their hands into the dark water, and pull them out, covered in oil.