In the 22-year-old battle between members of the Ecuadorian Secoya tribe and Chevron Corp., both sides are claiming important victories within the past few weeks. But independent analysts say there is still no real end in sight.
On Aug. 28, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled the Ecuadorian indigenous group has the legal right to sue Chevron’s subsidiary in Ontario involving decades of pollution in an area where Chevron formerly operated an oil field.
One week later, H5, a California-based litigation services firm, settled with Chevron, officially withdrawing its support for the Ecuadorian villagers. Previously, H5 had provided litigation research and other support to the Ecuadorian plaintiffs.
H5, one of four parties who have bowed out of the legal battle, made its decision after reviewing a key ruling by U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York, who found that a previous victory, won by the Secoya people in a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, was based on fraud.
“In view of those findings, among other reasons, H5 has decided it does not want to profit from the Ecuadorian judgment and is therefore relinquishing any interest in the judgment,” H5 announced in a public statement.
The original lawsuit was filed by the Secoya tribe spokesperson Humberto Piaguaje in 1993. At the time, the corporate defendant was Texaco Inc., bought by Chevron in 2000. The Lago Agrio Court ruled against Chevron, and ordered the company to pay $9.5 billion in remediation, but Chevron appealed, arguing that the ruling was unenforceable.
The case landed in Canada in 2012. As the legal tug of war went on, Chevron managed to avoid paying anything other than legal fees.
Although Canada’s recent Supreme Court ruling clears a path for a trial between the people of the Ecuadorian tribe and Chevron in North America, the decision does not guarantee the tribe any meaningful victory.
Robert Infelise, senior trial attorney and professor at the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the ruling in Canada applied specifically to Chevron’s Canadian subsidiary, not the corporation itself, which formerly was based in Richmond until moving to San Ramon.
“The one problem that [the Ecuadorian plaintiff] is going to have is that Chevron Canada is a different entity than the one against whom that judgment was entered,” Infelise said.
That suggests that until the Ecuadorians manage to win in the United States, advocates for the tribe will continue to be frustrated.
In 2013, City Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin was invited to visit the Ecuadorian Amazon region by local Ecuadorian officials who wanted the former Richmond mayor to see the polluted area. She described her visit as an eye-opening experience after seeing “the toxic sludge.”
Witnessing the ongoing suffering of the Secoya tribe, McLaughlin said, was an experience that reaffirmed what she considers to be Chevron’s need to meet its responsibility.
“When we talk about a multinational corporation like Chevron, when there’s a victory for one community on the globe, I think it’s also a victory for other communities affected by this oil giant,” she said.
Bay Area partisans for the Ecuadorian cause hope the Canadian ruling will strengthen local claims against Chevron involving issues in the Bay Area. But Infelise and other independent experts see only more litigation.
“It doesn’t appear as if settlement is in the cards,” Infelise said.