"A Civil Action," South-American Style
Air Date: Week of January 29, 1999
Amazonian Indians from Ecuador and Peru are facing off against Texaco once again in a New York federal courtroom. The rain-forest dwellers accuse Texaco of illegally dumping more than thirty billion gallons of oily toxic waste into the rivers and lakes of their homelands. Living On Earth spoke with Cristobal (kris-TOE-bal) Bonifaz, a lead attorney for the Indians.
CURWOOD: In the latest round in a long-running battle, Indians from the Amazonian regions of Ecuador and Peru are facing off against Texaco once again in a New York Federal courtroom. The rainforest dwellers accuse Texaco of illegally dumping more than 30 billion gallons of oily toxic waste from drilling into the rivers and lakes of their homelands from 1964 to 1992. Six years ago the Indians sued, claiming Texaco ignored safe drilling practices and damaged the environment and human health. Texaco denies the charges, and at one point had gotten the case thrown out. But a recent ruling from an appeals court is forcing Texaco back into court. Cristobal Bonifaz, a lead attorney for the Indians, says much of the pollution still remains.
BONIFAZ: You see these lakes of oil everywhere in the Amazon. There are 300 to 600 lakes of oil in the Amazon, 4 or 5 acres each in size. And of course, if you go down to the Amazon, one of the sights that you cannot ever forget is to see all these animals that have fallen into the oil. A night owl, some birds. And they just die in there slowly, while the oil soaks them in there.
CURWOOD: Basically, let me understand what your argument is here. Are you saying that when Texaco drilled in a rainforest, it didn't use the proper processes that it would do elsewhere, like in the United States? Is that what you're saying?
BONIFAZ: Absolutely. That's exactly what we're charging Texaco with. They used a procedure for extraction of oil that was not allowed to be used in the United States or anywhere else in the world, and it's a procedure that had been discarded in Texas as far back as 1919.
CURWOOD: Now, why is this procedure so destructive, in your view?
BONIFAZ: The procedures are destructive because oil comes to the surface of the soil, always, with water. This water stops it because it has been in intimate contact with the oil, so it contains a certain amount of oil, and contains cadmium, mercury, arsenic. And this water has to be reinjected into the formation from which it came from, and that is the standard practice. That was the standard practice in 1971 and before that. And yet, Texaco decided to dump it because for no other reason that because nobody was watching it.
CURWOOD: Now, why would they have done this?
BONIFAZ: It was economics. I think that the cost of reinjection can be as high as $3 per barrel, and the cost of producing oil in the Amazon rainforest is $1 a barrel at the wellhead because of the lack of reinjection. So it's profit, you made a lot of money. They made a tremendous profit from not reinjecting.
CURWOOD: Now, Texaco says that it spent some $40 million in environmental restoration projects in the region. Isn't that a sign of good faith?
BONIFAZ: Well, let me just state what they did. The government of Ecuador and Texaco got together, and they came back in 1995 with this so-called agreement for $40 million. What that agreement did, is that they actually took bulldozers and they tried to put dirt on top of the oil ponds that existed. And today, you go to the Amazon where there was a previous oil pond from Texaco, and you walk on top of that dirt and pretty soon you begin to sink into oil. The oil is still there and it's still seeping into the groundwater.
CURWOOD: I understand you've pursued this case by using an age-old US law that was once used against pirates to get the case heard here in the United States.
BONIFAZ: Well, this is one of our arguments in front of the court. We have maintained that Texaco violated an international law, because of these actions. Once you have a violation of international law, these people, by this 1789 law, have the right to come to the United States and sue the violator of the rights and sue the violator of the international law. And we maintain that that statute's still in force. It has been used in the United States successfully to prosecute people that conduct genocide. And we believe it should be used for this case, also, because it's equivalent.
CURWOOD: What sort of precedent do you think all of this sets? I mean, how might this influence future cases involving the multinational businesses and environmental damage?
BONIFAZ: I think that the way it's going to influence it is, if we succeed in getting jurisdiction because of the violation of international law, it's going to put these people on notice that the rest of the world is not just a trash heap where they can go and do what they want and profit from it.
CURWOOD: Cristobal Bonifaz is a lead attorney representing the Amazonian Indians in their case against Texaco. Thanks for joining us today, sir.
BONIFAZ: Thank you.
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