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How Chevron Polluted the Amazon and Fought Environmental Lawyer Steven Donziger

Polluters want to use me as a symbol to silence the advocacy that is needed to save the planet, says Steven Donziger.

Steven Donziger appears at a rally in front of the Manhattan Court House in New York City on October 1, 2021.

Decades ago, the U.S.-based petroleum corporation Texaco devastated Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorian Amazon with pollution, in what came to be known as “the Amazon Chernobyl.” It resulted in roughly 1,000 carcinogenic waste pits and 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater dumped into pristine rivers. Among local people who drank and bathed in these waters, cancers and miscarriages skyrocketed. Represented by Steven Donziger, Indigenous peoples sued the company, which had been bought by Chevron in 2000, and won over $9 billion. Chevron, however, ignored the Ecuadorian courts and took its case to New York, where it found a friendly judge, amenable to its aim of not paying and of destroying Donziger. Contacted for comment, Chevron noted it paid roughly $40 million for environmental remediation and accused Donziger of being a disbarred racketeer convicted of criminal contempt. Details provided by Donziger, however, tell a different tale altogether. In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Donziger discusses the ongoing disaster in the Amazon, how he was targeted for his advocacy and why we must continue to confront corporate polluters.

Eve Ottenberg: What did Texaco do in Lago Agrio?

Steven Donziger: Texaco, now Chevron, deliberately made a series of decisions that led to what experts believe is the world’s worst oil contamination. They did three things that were completely out of line with normal operating procedure that resulted in massive pollution. Number one is when they drilled for oil, they did it improperly. The drilling muds come up from thousands of feet under the ground when you perforate a well, and these muds contain heavy metals as well as synthetic chemicals that are cancer-causing and extremely harmful to the environment, to animal life and to humans.

Instead of disposing of it properly, Chevron just dumped it into the environment by gouging large pits out of the floor of the jungle, and putting these cancer-causing substances there for permanent waste disposal. They didn’t line the pits. They also built pipes into the sides of the pits to drain the contents into rivers and streams that Indigenous peoples and farmers relied on for drinking water, bathing and fishing. So, this one problem alone — that is, the construction of these pits at hundreds of drilling sites around the Amazon — caused a massive outbreak of cancer that, according to data, is still killing people and causing tremendous harm in a region that’s 1,500 square miles in size.

I read there were 900 of these pits, maybe more.

Roughly 1,000 pits. Various peer-reviewed health studies, done by respected academics, show extremely high incidences of cancers, including childhood leukemia, which you almost never see in the world, including ovarian cancer and all sorts of cancers related to the toxic substances that are in oil. Not to mention a huge number of miscarriages, much higher than the norm.

On top of that, Chevron did two other things that completely violated industry norms. Number two is they took production waters — which is the scalding hot wastewater that comes out of the ground with the oil, and contains benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals — and they separated it out and dumped it into waterways instead of reinjecting it deep into the ground, as is the norm. They just dumped it. They ran it off into rivers and streams that local communities relied on for their drinking water. And this happened on a daily basis, literally millions of gallons a day of these cancer-causing substances were being dumped into these beautiful Amazon rivers that the local communities relied on for their sustenance, with zero explanation or warning to the communities.

How long did they do this?

They did it for 25 years. Started in the 1960s and lasted until the 1990s when they left Ecuador. On a daily basis, seven days a week, 24-hours a day, for well over two decades. Four million gallons a day of cancer-causing oil waste dumped into waterways in the middle of Indigenous ancestral lands.

Then the final thing they did is they flared the natural gas that comes out of the wells into the air. This flared natural gas contains poisons, dioxins, and other toxins that also cause cancer. The flaring also produces a “black rain” phenomenon where the air gets so dark with pollution that when it rains, the rain comes down with soot in it. So even capturing rainwater as an alternative to the river water becomes futile. The irony is that in a few short years, because of these illegal practices, Chevron poisoned one of the most beautiful ecosystems on Earth. Thousands of people lost access to clean water and other materials, including food sources that they needed to sustain life and all the ecosystems. And Indigenous peoples and farmer communities in the area generally do not have money to buy bottled water. So, Chevron has determined, out of what I would argue is pure greed and focus on profit, that tens of thousands of people must suffer and die so it could elevate its already high profits to obscene levels, and it has refused to clean it up in light of court orders that it do so.

And what did Chevron do to you?

I worked with a team of lawyers in Ecuador and around the world to litigate a legal case in Ecuador over the pollution. The reason the case was in Ecuador was that Chevron wanted it there and accepted jurisdiction there. Once they started to lose the case and the evidence mounted against them, they came back to the United States where I live in New York, and began to sue me in a civil legal case. [Chevron] sued me for $60 billion. That’s far more money than any individual in U.S. history has ever been sued for, and I’m a human rights lawyer working at my kitchen table in a small two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan where I live with my wife and my son. So, this was an intimidation play to get me to stop, to try to intimidate others on our team or who might work on our team, and to win by corrupt means what they could never win on the merits.

Chevron engaged in these preposterous legal attacks, facilitated by a particular U.S. federal judge, who has investments in Chevron and is a pro-corporate ideologue, an activist named Louis Kaplan. When that didn’t work, when we continued to litigate the case, and won the case, Chevron stepped up its attacks on me. They worked with Judge Kaplan to get the court to order me to pay them literally millions of dollars to reimburse them for their legal fees for going after me in this bogus case. This essentially bankrupted me. I have no money. I’m dependent now on a defense fund to live.

Chevron also leveraged Judge Kaplan’s various decisions against me based on a witness to whom they paid $2 million, who admitted he lied in court, to take away my law license, depriving me of an ability to earn a living. Ultimately, they convinced Judge Kaplan to order me to give them my computer and cellphone, which contain troves of confidential information. When I appealed that order, Judge Kaplan charged me with criminal contempt of court for appealing an unprecedented order that I turn over my confidential communications to my adversary. While this order was on appeal, Kaplan had me locked up in my home with an ankle bracelet. His contempt charges were rejected by the regular federal prosecutor. Kaplan then appointed a private Chevron law firm to prosecute me in the name of the U.S. government, which again is unprecedented. During the three years of my home detention, they sent me to federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, for 45 days. It was during the COVID outbreak and we were locked down in cells; I literally expected to die in there if I didn’t get out.

I got out of my detention on April 25 of this year, and since then, we’ve been trying to refocus our energy on the people of Ecuador to have the judgment enforced, so they can get the compensation they need to clean up their ancestral lands, so these Indigenous groups can survive and not become extinct, and can have clean water and have their health needs treated. There’s a massive humanitarian crisis in Ecuador. People are dying every day and not even the Ecuador government wants to acknowledge it. Attention needs to be paid to the people of Ecuador, and that’s what I’m going to try to do now going forward.

Did you get your law license back?

Chevron stripped me of my ability to practice law. I’m not going to get into the technicalities of this. Essentially, they leveraged Kaplan’s decision that I committed fraud in Ecuador to convince a law licensing committee in Manhattan to disbar me. This committee denied me a hearing. Chevron’s lawyers orchestrated the entire proceeding, feeding the committee its arguments to “prosecute” me. They claimed I got a hearing before Kaplan, even though he refused to let me testify in my defense and allowed Chevron pay $2 million to a corrupt witness to lie about me. So, I was disbarred without a hearing in the United States of America.

The judgment in Ecuador has been affirmed by six different appellate courts and 28 different appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada, including the Supreme Courts of both countries. So, this was all a subterfuge by Chevron and the judge to try to discredit me and to disable my advocacy. I don’t have my law license back; I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. Let me be very, very clear: it’s not because I did anything wrong. It’s actually because I did a lot of things right. The bar that controls lawyer licensing here in New York is totally dominated by corporate law firms, including by the Gibson Dunn firm to whom Chevron paid hundreds of millions of dollars to have me detained.

What can the Indigenous peoples do now?

Number one, the Indigenous peoples and farmer communities in Ecuador’s Amazon are organizing a new legal team to go after Chevron’s assets in many different countries where they operate. If a debtor won’t pay a legitimate court judgment, as Chevron continues to refuse to do, then they are subject to enforcement actions that could result in the seizure of their assets. They are also focused on calling attention to the humanitarian crisis so there can be some immediate relief sent to this region. I’m doing my best to help them. And finally, they are trying to protect all the lawyers and advocates who are working on the case because attacks by the fossil fuel industry on advocates is a major issue affecting all environmental campaigners and activists around the world. We cannot live in a society where a corporation can lock someone up for being a successful human rights advocate and for holding them accountable. That’s what happened to me; we must be sure it never happens again. It certainly shouldn’t happen in any rule-of-law country, and it shouldn’t happen in the United States of America.

So, we’re going to focus on that issue too, which is central to our ability to protect our planet from global warming. If we cannot confront the major polluters without being locked up, we stand little chance of surviving. The attack on me is meant to intimidate thousands if not millions of people around the world and we need to protect me going forward as a way to protect our movement. I have 68 Nobel laureates backing me, and thousands of people around the world have stepped up, and I’m so grateful. But we need to understand the stakes here. They want to use me as a symbol to silence the advocacy that is needed to save the planet. We cannot let them succeed. The work continues.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.