THOUGH Texaco has left Ecuador's oil-rich Amazon Basin, after 20 years and 1.4 billion barrels of production, the environmental damage it caused remains, according to American environmentalists and indigenous Ecuadoran tribes.
Environmental charges against Texaco, which transferred all oil operations to the government of Ecuador in 1990, were renewed this week in a study released by the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
The report joins a recent class action lawsuit against Texaco filed in New York on behalf of indigenous rain forest tribes.
If the case against Texaco is successful, environmentalists say, it could have significant implications for the way multinational organizations operate in developing nations. ``We think this is a test case,'' says Roger Normand, policy director for CESR, ``and important because of its implications for NAFTA.''
A team of US scientists working for CESR tested drinking, bathing, and fishing waters, and the condition of 20 Indians, at sites in Ecuador's Oriente region.
They found ``extremely high levels of toxic compounds'' in the water samples. The waters had levels of contamination ``10 to 1,000 times greater than the US Environmental Protection Agency's safety guidelines.'' The report says the contamination came from nearby oil facilities, and that ``medical examinations of residents showed health ailments associated with exposure to these highly toxic chemicals.''
The US scientists concluded that Texaco, ``which designed, built, and for 18 years operated the facilities that released the bulk of the contamination in the Oriente ... should be held civilly liable to compensate those injured by their actions.''
BUT Michael Trevino, a vice president of Texaco, defends Texaco's record.
``We operated in Ecuador for a number of years ... We believe we made significant contributions to the development of that country.'' Texaco joined in a consortium with PetroEcuador, the government oil company, to build a 500-mile-long pipeline in Ecuador.
``We have participated in two independent audits [in Ecuador]. The first found ... no widespread or long-term damage to the water, soil, or air,'' says Mr. Trevino, who had not seen the CESR report. ``The audit was done with overall conformance with international industry practices.''
The Texaco executive says the company paid for the first audit, and is paying for half of the second, not yet made public. Trevino also says Texaco will take ``whatever measures are necessary to remedy whatever damage [the audits] conclude has been done.''
The CESR report is scheduled to be released in Ecuador this Monday. ``Our report is the first time anyone has gone to Ecuador and done scientific studies that demonstrate the contamination released by the oil companies is effecting people's health,'' says Mr. Normand. ``This is a violation of human rights as well, not just a debate over how companies and governments should manage natural resources.''
Much criticism of Texaco focuses on their former practice of digging unlined oil pits in the ground adjacent to drilling sites in Ecuador. These pits contained unmarketable crude oil and toxic waste water. Hundreds of pits were dug throughout the Oriente. Along with oil-soaked dirt roads, the pits are considered the largest source of environmental contamination, environmentalists say.
``These unlined oil pits have contaminated the rivers and lands,'' says John Bonifaz, a Boston attorney and one of seven attorneys bringing the class action suit against Texaco on behalf of Oriente tribes. ``What Texaco didn't do was send the oil and waste water back into the well to go 8,000 feet into the ground.''
Trevino says much of the Oriente's ground is clay, which reduces the potential for seepage.
The International Water Tribunal, the World Bank, and the United Nations have all criticized Texaco's methods.