There is one core allegation at the center of the decades-long court fight by Indigenous Ecuadorians for environmental justice: That to save money, Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into hundreds of uncovered, unlined pits that now dot over a million acres.
Texaco has admitted to dumping 15.8 billion gallons.
Better technology might have prevented some of the subsequent environmental contamination from those pits, but Texaco chose not to use it.
Oil in its natural state is trapped underground and surrounded by water. During extraction, the water — referred to as production, waste, or formation water — rises to the surface with the oil. This waste water is salty and often mixed with oil, naturally occurring radioactive material, and other chemicals. It’s highly toxic, and must be handled and disposed of with caution.
In the U.S., stretching back decades to the 1970s, regulators require that drilling waste water be re-injected into the ground, where it is less likely to harm people or the environment. Texacos’s 1960s-era drilling predates that requirement, but at a minimum, as Tim Lagonegro, a geologist who spent more than 30 years consulting for oil companies, put it: “They had tarps back then, too.”
But in Ecuador, where there were no regulators making similar demands, Texaco saved billions by dumping its oily waste into unlined pits and leaving it there. The company dug these pits wherever it was most convenient. Sometimes those sites were next to homes, adjacent to drinking water wells, and uphill from rivers and streams local residents relied on for bathing and fishing.
Judith Kimerling, a former New York assistant attorney general who helped prosecute Occidental in the 1970s for its contamination of Love Canal, says what happened in Ecuador is appalling.
“I thought that …