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$16 billion environmental lawsuit tests Chevron

The case filed by Ecuadorean indigenous groups is one of the largest environmental suits against an oil firm and could set a precedent. Chevron dismisses it as a 'charade.'

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In a statement last week, Chevron said it will ask the Supreme Court of Lago Agrio to dismiss the report.

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Veiga also accused Cabrera of improperly collaborating with the plaintiffs, saying that the company has evidence, including videotapes, that his technical team received logistical support from a group called Amazon Defense Front, a civic group that backs the plaintiffs and that would receive and disburse a portion of any payments.

The lawsuit's political tone

The lawsuit has taken on a political tone in both the US and Ecuador.

Ecuador's leftist president Rafael Correa, who came to office in 2006 on a platform involving promises to renegotiate oil contracts in Ecuador's favor, has said that the oil damage allegedly caused by Texaco is much greater than the 11-million gallon Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaskan coast in 1989.

In February, Sens. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois and Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont sent a letter to US Trade Representative Rob Portman urging him to ignore an apparent campaign by Chevron to exclude Ecuador from trade negotiations until the Ecuadorean government shuts down the lawsuit. "While we are not prejudging the outcome of the case, we do believe the 30,000 indigenous residents of Ecuador deserve their day in court," the senators wrote.

It's unclear what will happen in this increasingly bitter lawsuit.

What's beyond dispute, however, is that the rain forest bears indelible ecological stains. Streams in the area are topped with shimmering layers and pastures are covered with sludgy soil smelling of diesel.

Impoverished locals interviewed for this story are suffering illnesses that they blame on oil contamination. Chevron has denied causal links between illnesses and Texaco's operations.

Lawyers are increasingly going after US-based oil companies for alleged crimes committed overseas.

In 2005, in Doe v. Unocal, the California-based oil company agreed to a settlement after being sued for collaborating with Burmese military personnel in the torture and murder of Burmese villagers. A pending case, Bowoto v. Chevron, accuses Chevron of collaborating with Nigerian forces alleged to have killed indigenous oil opponents. And the Peruvian Achuar people are suing Occidental Petroleum for alleged environmental and health damages left in Peru's oil-rich northern Amazon. That case, filed last year in California court, is also pending.

"The sheer scale of this damages assessment sends out a powerful message to the oil industry and to other extractive industries; times have changed," says Simeon Tegel, a spokesman for California-based group Amazon Watch, which is backing plaintiffs in the case. "You can no longer expect to get away with using negligent environmental practices in the Amazon or anywhere else in the developing world and get away with it."

Kelly Hearn traveled to Ecuador on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.