An environmental case that has pitted Chevron against Ecuadorean Amazon villagers for two decades has taken another bizarre twist, with an American consulting firm now recanting research favorable to the villagers’ claims of pollution in remote tracts of jungle. The consulting firm, Stratus Consulting of Boulder, Colo., announced late Thursday (April 11, 2013) that it had originally been misled by Steven R. Donziger, a lead lawyer for the Ecuadorean villagers, and had decided to disavow its contributions to scientific research about whether there was groundwater contamination that sickened the residents in swaths of rain forest.
The move prompted the plaintiffs to assert that Chevron was coercing parties to the case, citing this as another example of strong tactics employed by the company as it tries to overturn an Ecuadorean judge’s decision two years ago that it pay $18 billion in damages, one of the largest environmental awards ever. In this instance, the plaintiffs claim that Chevron pressured Stratus to retract its assessment in exchange for dismissal of legal claims in a countersuit filed by Chevron made against the firm — claims that could have pushed the consulting business into bankruptcy. “Stratus deeply regrets its involvement in the Ecuador litigation,” the firm said. It remains unclear whether this development with Stratus will have much impact on Chevron’s appeals, because the judge also based his ruling on other environmental assessments. The judge ruled that back in the 1970s, Texaco had left an environmental mess in oil drilling operations while operating as a partner with the Ecuadorean state oil company, and that Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, must apologize for and was liable for the damage.
Chevron has refused to apologize. In addition to appealing the decision in the Ecuadorean courts, Chevron also filed a countersuit in federal court in New York against Mr. Donziger and Stratus Consulting, accusing them of racketeering and fraud. Because Stratus has now retracted its statements on the Ecuadorean pollution, Chevron agreed not to pursue claims against the firm anymore. On Friday, Chevron filed witness statements from Douglas Beltman, a Stratus vice president, and Ann Maest, a Stratus scientist, in which they now say they were not aware of scientific evidence of groundwater contamination in the former Texaco concession area or of any adverse health impact to people from the operations.
Mr. Beltman stated that “at Donziger’s direction,” he drafted portions of a report in the first person as if it were written by Richard Cabrera, the supposedly independent expert, that detailed environmental damage for the Ecuadorean court. “Donziger stressed to me and Ann Maest the importance of Stratus ensuring that no one learn of Stratus’ involvement in any aspect of the Cabrera Report or Responses,” he said. In an interview, Mr. Beltman said, “This settlement was extensively negotiated with Chevron and we think it’s fair and it’s not extortion.” Mr. Donziger said he could not comment since he was a defendant in the racketeering case filed by Chevron.
It was not immediately clear what impact Stratus’s recantation would have on the case. Chevron’s appeal is before Ecuador’s highest court, the National Court of Justice, and the company is defending itself in courts in Canada, Argentina and Brazil to avoid paying damages in those countries. The plaintiffs are waging an international campaign seeking damages because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador itself…
Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman, said the statements should uphold the company’s position in the American racketeering case and in the international enforcement proceedings. “The declarations today show there is no scientific evidence to support the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ allegations,” he said.
Craig Smyser, a lawyer for some of the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, said the statements by the consulting firm “should have almost no effect” because the Ecuadorean judge relied on many expert reports other than the one that Stratus was involved in. He attributed the decision by Stratus to repudiate its earlier work to the “immense financial strain that threatened the financial extinction of the firm, including a campaign by Chevron to discredit Stratus with various government agencies and businesses with which Stratus worked.”
Chevron has been playing hardball for at least four years. The company produced video recordings from pens and watches wired with bugging devices that suggested a bribery scheme surrounding the proceedings and involving a judge hearing the case. An American behind the secret recordings was a convicted drug trafficker. But the oil company appeared to gain the upper hand three years ago when it won a legal bid to secure the outtakes from a documentary about the case, “Crude,” in which Mr. Donziger was shown describing the need to pressure a Ecuadorean judge and boasting of meetings with Ecuadorean officials.
In a sworn statement filed in an American court, Alberto Guerra, an Ecuadorean judge who heard the Chevron case in 2003 and 2004, accused Nicolas Zambrano, the judge who issued the $18 billion verdict against Chevron, of taking a $500,000 bribe from the plaintiffs. Mr. Zambrano denied the charge, and in his own affidavit, said that Mr. Guerra had told him that Chevron would offer him $1 million in return for a favorable judgment. Chevron has denied offering any bribes.
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS, Consultant Recants in Chevron Pollution Case in Ecuador, NY Times, April 12, 2013