By Kaelyn Forde
10 April 2015
(Al Jazeera) – Videos reportedly leaked by a whistleblower at the Chevron Corp. purport to show employees and consultants paid by the energy giant finding petroleum contamination at sites in the Ecuadorean Amazon that the company claimed was cleaned up years earlier.
According to the environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch, which released the videos, the recordings arrived at the nonprofit’s office in 2011 with no return address and a note that read, “I hope this is useful for you in the trial against Texaco/Chevron. [Signed] A friend from Chevron.” Amazon Watch said the videos show Chevron employees conducting pre-inspections in 2005 and 2006 to find clean soil samples ahead of court-monitored inspections.
The videos are the latest twist in a decades-long court battle between the California-based Chevron and plaintiffs from the Lago Agrio area of the Amazon. The plaintiffs and their attorney Steven Donzinger allege that a consortium run by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, polluted the rain forest for decades, causing serious health problems for the thousands of indigenous people in Ecuador’s Oriente region.
In one of the videos, which Amazon Watch says was filmed at the Shushufindi 21 site, a Chevron employee identified only as Rene and a consultant from engineering firm URS identified only as Dave can be seen laughing about finding petroleum in a soil sample they have taken:
Rene: “Nice job, Dave. Give you one simple task: Don’t find petroleum.”
Dave: “Who picked the spot, Rene?”
Rene: “Don’t, don’t find petroleum.”
Dave: “Who picked the spot, Rene? Who told us where to drill, Rene?”
Rene: “My fault? I’m the customer. I’m always right. Where’s that URS attitude that the customer is always right?”
Amazon Watch told Al Jazeera America that the videos are “smoking-gun evidence of Chevron’s corruption.”
“We have known that these sites were not remediated all along, that they [Chevron] had just pushed dirt over top of them. We knew they were contaminated, but the big thing was that in these videos, they are actually admitting it,” said Paul Paz y Miño, the director of outreach at Amazon Watch.
“There’s no confusion that these are the sites that they claimed to remediate and that these are videos their employees made themselves showing the contamination was still there and joking about it,” he added.
"We are calling on our country’s prosecutors to use these videos as evidence in an investigation to determine if these individuals and those who directed them violated any criminal laws,” Humberto Piaguaje, a Secoya leader and a representative of the Union of Affected Peoples, said in a statement.
Chevron does not deny the videos belong to the company. In a February 2013 letter from its attorneys, “Chevron demanded that you [the plaintiffs’ law firm] promptly return the improperly obtained videos.”
A spokesman for Chevron told Al Jazeera America that the videos have been taken out of context.
“These edited video clips demonstrate the process used to identify the perimeters of pits at oil field sites, which is standard practice in environmental testing,” wrote Morgan Crinkler, a spokesman in Chevron’s policy, government and public affairs division, in an email. “A variety of samples were taken inside and outside the pits to determine their borders. There was nothing ‘secret’ about this process, and pre-inspection sampling was performed by the plaintiffs as well.”
Paz y Miño said it’s clear that one of the videos shows the Shushufindi 21 site; the video begins with a map, and advocates recognize the local residents being interviewed, he said. But Chevron’s spokesman said it is not possible to know which sites are being tested in the videos. Texaco’s consortium also included the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador.
“However, these edited clips do not indicate what site was being tested or whether the site was the responsibility of Texaco or Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company. The judgment against Chevron in Ecuador has been found by a U.S. federal court to be the product of fraud. If there was evidence to support their claims against Chevron, the plaintiffs and their lawyers would not have had to resort to bribery, extortion, ghostwriting and other corrupt means,” Crinkler wrote in an email.
In 2011 an Ecuadorean court found Chevron guilty and ordered it to pay $19 billion, at the time one of the largest environmental judgments in history. Chevron has insisted that a $40 million cleanup by Texaco and an agreement Texaco signed with the government of Ecuador in 1998 have absolved Chevron of further liability.
In 2013, Ecuador’s highest court upheld the ruling against Chevron, but the amount the company had to pay was reduced to $9.5 billion.
The case took a different turn in March 2014 when a federal judge in New York ruled in favor of Chevron, blocking plaintiffs from using U.S. courts to collect the $9.5 billion judgment.
In a nearly 500-page ruling, Judge Lewis Kaplan did not deny the existence of pollution in the Amazon but said Donzinger and the attorneys working with him used “corrupt means” in their case against Chevron, including submitting fraudulent evidence, coercing a judge and paying a consulting firm to “ghost-write” a court-appointed expert’s report. Kaplan also wrote that Amazon Watch allowed Donzinger to draft some of its press releases. He added that there was “no Robin Hood defense to illegal and wrongful conduct.”
“The court assumes that there is pollution in the Oriente. On that assumption, Texaco and perhaps even Chevron — though it never drilled for oil in Ecuador — might bear some responsibility,” Kaplan wrote. “So even if Donziger and his clients had a just cause — and the court expresses no opinion on that — they were not entitled to corrupt the process to achieve their goal.” […]
“We think it is important that the world see these videos now. The people who are interviewed in these videos, they are still living with contamination, they are still drinking the same water, and they are still getting sick and dying from it,” Paz y Miño said.
“In those videos, the people are telling Chevron that the water they have to drink is contaminated. But rather than help them, Chevron turns around and says these people are extortionists and this is a fraud. It’s bad enough to know about it in 2005 and do nothing. It’s adding insult to injury to turn around almost a decade later and point the finger at the very people who are still suffering and call them criminals and extortionists,” he added. [more]
"Pre-inspection" videos are further evidence of Chevron's effort to corrupt Ecuador pollution trial
Oakland, CA, 8 April 2015 (Amazon Watch) – Internal Chevron videos of secret "pre-inspections" of well sites during the Ecuador pollution trial show company technicians finding and then mocking the extensive oil contamination in areas of the Amazon rainforest that the oil giant had claimed in various courts had been remediated, said the environmental and human rights advocacy group Amazon Watch.
An apparent Chevron whistleblower sent dozens of internal company videos to Amazon Watch with a note signed "A Friend from Chevron." Most of the videos – some of which can be seen on the Amazon Watch website – show Chevron employees and consultants secretly visiting the company's former well sites in Ecuador to find "clean" spots where they could take soil and water samples at later site inspections when the presiding trial judge would be in attendance.
"This is smoking gun evidence of Chevron's corruption caught on tape," said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador Program Director at Amazon Watch who has worked with the affected indigenous and farmer communities for two decades.
In the videos, Chevron employees and consultants can be heard joking about clearly visible pollution in soil samples being pulled out of the ground from waste pits that Chevron testified before both U.S. and Ecuadorian courts had been remediated in the mid-1990s. (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and is now liable for the company's environmental problems.)
In a March 2005 video, a Chevron employee, named Rene, taunts a company consultant, named Dave, at well site Shushufindi 21:
"... you keep finding oil in places where it shouldn't have been.... Nice job, Dave. Give you one simple task: Don't find petroleum."
After reviewing 105 technical evidentiary reports documenting extensive pollution, eight appellate judges, including Ecuador's Supreme Court, affirmed Chevron's liability in 2013 after 11 years of legal proceedings in the company's chosen forum. Damages were set at $9.5 billion, but Chevron thus far has refused to pay.
Chevron Chairman of the Board and CEO John Watson promised the Ecuadorians a lifetime of litigation, saying the 22-year-old legal battle will end when "the plaintiffs' lawyers give up." Amazon Watch has criticized Watson's strategy to escape accountability for the contamination and vilify Chevron's critics. (See here and here.)
Texaco and Chevron testified Shushufindi's pits had been cleaned but when Chevron's technicians find oil, Rene snickers about the contamination with several consultants:
Dave said to Rene: Good news! Petroleum!
Rene: No! No, check it again … Ok it is, it is, it is. Well, we might as well stop them now, shh stop them, just yeah, we're done. We're trying to draw a clean core and obviously we didn't go out far enough.
Dave: Yeah, but was there supposed to be anything this far south?
Rene: No, now we've got a headache.
Later, Rene jokes about blaming the consultants for finding contamination where it shouldn't have been:
"Shoot the messenger. … and then it's your fault, not our fault for putting it there, see? It's a brilliantly conceived strategy."
Rene refers to "Dave" in the video as an employee of URS, a San Francisco-based engineering company used by Chevron in the Ecuador trial.
A Chevron cameraman also conducted revealing interviews with area residents during and after the pre-inspections, which took place in 2005 and 2006.
The Chevron videos also show local villagers complaining about the pollution, often blaming Texaco (now owned by Chevron) and recounting how the American oil company never cleaned some of the waste pits and instead covered them with dirt to try to hide the contamination.
For example, a Chevron cameraman asked questions of a resident named Merla who has lived in the area for over 30 years near well site Shushufindi 25, where Texaco and Chevron said pits had been cleaned.
Merla: We've had our cows die … They drank the water where the oil had spilled. Back then, that whole area was full of crude oil. The water there was filthy. They came and stopped the leak and they just left all of the crude oil there. It's pure crude there. In the middle, it's a thick ooze and you'd sink right down into it.
Chevron Interviewer: When was this oil spill?
Merla: More than 20 years ago … But I still remember it, how there was oil over everything. The cows still die there. They came, threw some dirt on top of the crude oil, and there it stayed.
Chevron Interviewer: How long ago did they cover up the pit?
Merla: 19 years … Texaco. They came here and just covered up the oil. They kept saying they were going to clean it up and they never did. And then they disappeared.
Chevron Interviewer: Did they remove the crude oil?
Merla: They dumped a lot of dirt on it and that was it.
Additional videos are being reviewed by Amazon Watch and will be released in the coming weeks.
Chevron never turned over any of the secret videos to the Ecuador court conducting the trial. Nor did the company submit its pre-inspection sampling results to the court, despite the fact evidence later emerged that they confirmed high levels of cancer-causing oil contamination at many of the company's former well sites in the country.
In a related but separate arbitration matter, a tribunal recently ordered the company to turn over contamination test results from the pre-inspections, reflected in this document. It shows Chevron found illegal levels of contaminants at 76 former company well sites in Ecuador during both the pre-inspections and the official judicial inspections, confirming yet again the finding of liability against the oil major in its chosen forum of Ecuador.
Amazon Watch received dozens of DVDs from the whistleblower by mail at its Washington, DC office. All were titled "pre-inspection" with dates and places of the former oil production sites where Chevron sought to plan its sampling strategy to mislead the Ecuadorian court during the judicially-supervised site inspections.
Inside the package was a handwritten note stating: "I hope this is useful for you in your trial against Texaco/Chevron. [signed] A Friend from Chevron."
Leaders of Amazon Watch said they were flabbergasted to see the contents of the videos.
"These explosive videos confirm what the Ecuadorian Supreme Court has found after reviewing the evidence: that Chevron has lied for years about its pollution problem in Ecuador," said Kevin Koenig. "The videos show company technicians discussing in stark terms the presence of oil pollution in places where they told the court it didn't exist. This is corruption caught on tape."
"This is smoking gun evidence that shows Chevron hands are dirty – first for contaminating the region, and then for manipulating and hiding critical evidence," said Paul Paz y Miño, Director of Outreach at Amazon Watch. "While its technicians were engaging in fraud in the field, Chevron's management team was launching a campaign to demonize the Ecuadorians and their lawyers as a way to distract attention from the company's reckless misconduct."
"The behavior of Chevron throughout the litigation reflects a grossly unethical internal culture that clearly is encouraged at the highest levels of the company," Paz y Miño added.
On April 20, a federal appellate court in Manhattan will hear oral argument in the appeal of fraud charges brought by Chevron in a U.S. court as part of the company's retaliation strategy to evade paying the Ecuador judgment. In 2011, a federal appeals panel ruled against Chevron when the company obtained an unprecedented ruling purporting to block enforcement of the Ecuador judgment anywhere in the world.
This time, Chevron is seeking to block collection of the judgment anywhere in the world via an order that the villagers argue violates domestic and international law and has no precedent.
The videos also are consistent with prior examples of Chevron's efforts to corrupt the evidence-gathering process during the Ecuador trial. In 2009, Chevron consultant Diego Borja admitted he switched out dirty samples for clean ones during the Ecuador trial. In 2011, a U.S. court forced Chevron to release its "judicial inspection playbook" that directed company technicians to only lift soil samples from clean spots usually up-gradient from the company's toxic waste pits. Clean samples and dirty samples were sent to different labs, with the plan being that only the cleanest samples would be submitted to the court.
Despite this trickery, the scientific evidence showed that the soil samples were so saturated with oil that even Chevron's own technical reports submitted to the court still demonstrated illegal levels of contamination, according to court findings.
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