Since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, "Crude" has been praised in the media and has won a series of environmental and human rights awards. Theaters were packed for the film's opening weekend in New York City in September.
'Crude' filmmaker Joe Berlinger with posters for the documentary at the New York City opening, September 9, 2009. (Photo courtesy Amazon Watch)
"Crude" runs from October 23 through 29 at the Landmark E Street Theatre in Washington, DC.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger focuses on the legal controversy as well as the destruction of human life and the rainforest environment from nearly three decades of oil exploration and development of the Lago Agrio oil field in northeast Ecuador.
The film delves into the complexities of the lawsuit currently underway against the company in Lago Agrio, where Chevron's subsidiary, Texaco Petroleum Company participated until 1992 as a minority member of a consortium that explored for and produced oil under contracts with Ecuador and Ecuador's government-owned oil company, Petroecuador.
Filed by Ecuadorian Indians and farmers who have suffered illnesses and ecological damage to their land caused by oil contamination, the lawsuit alleges that from 1964 to 1990, Texaco deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic oil production process waste into unlined pits rather than injecting it underground.
In 1995, amid litigation, Texaco agreed to clean a number of waste pits in proportion to its interest in the consortium, at a cost of $40 million. In exchange, the government of Ecuador released Texaco from further liability. Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, has used this agreement as its primary defense against the ongoing legal claims.
American human rights activist and attorney Kerry Kennedy has taken up the cause of the Ecuadorian indigenous groups. Founding president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, and the chair of the Amnesty International Leadership Council, Kennedy is a daughter of former U.S. attorney general and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy,
After a visit to the affected area earlier this month, Kennedy told reporters on a teleconference what she observed.
"I saw open air, unlined waste pits, full of oil sludge, built and abandoned by Texaco, never operated by any other company," Kennedy said. "I met a man whose home is just a few hundred yards from the pit. He told me he had 10 children, all of them have become sick, some covered with sores. He told me he has endured a stomach ache for over eight years. His chickens have died, his pigs have died, he said nothing grows near his home anymore."
Texaco built some 350 oil wells across 2,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest. From 1964 to 1990, the company dumped over 18 billion gallons of production water, a mixture of oil, sulfuric acid, and other carcinogens into the streams and rivers where people collect drinking water, bathe, and children swim, Kennedy alleged.
One of more than 900 unlined oil waste pits in the rainforest of northeast Ecuador. April 2009. (Photo by Raoni Maddalena)
"Texaco constructed over 900 oil sludge pits in the early, many the size of Olympic swimming pools. Unlike swimming pools, these pits were unlined with no concrete to protect the surrounding soils and waters from seepage. This allowed the poison to seep into the ground water, and, in a rainforest with heavy rainfall, they were uncovered, so the pollutants were constantly spilling out into surrounding forests and streams," she said.
"Texaco's trucks dumped more oil waste on the roads where people walked, often in bare feet because they could not afford shoes," Kennedy said. "Imagine the burns from sticky black tar-like like substances that stick to the feet baking in the hot sun along the equator."
"I saw enormous gas flares in the middle of the rainforest spewing venom into the air, poison which, because of the delicate ecosystem, will continue to cause damage for generations to come," she said.
"Texaco knew people would die because of what they were doing, and they ignored it," Kennedy accused. "People have died. There are 1,400 cancer deaths directly attributed to Texaco's waste. An entire group of indigenous people have been wiped out. What they did arguably amounts to criminally negligent homicide."
Kennedy said she would welcome the opportunity to speak with the Chevron Board of Directors about this matter. On October 15, she sent a letter to Board Chair David O'Reilly seeking dialogue. O'Reilly retires at the end of the year and will be succeeded by John S. Watson, the company has announced.
"As an American," she said, "I am appalled that a corporation from our country would treat innocent people with such disdain, and I am confident that as more Americans gain awareness of this behavior, Chevron will be held accountable."
Congressman James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who visited the affected area last year and who is scheduled to attend the film premiere, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in which he described the situation in Ecuador as a “terrible humanitarian and environmental crisis.”
McGovern said in the letter, “As an American citizen, the degradation and contamination left behind by this U.S. company in a poor part of the world made me angry and ashamed.”
In the oil-contaminated community of Yamanunka, Luis and his relatives show signs of cancer after drinking the water he collects in the river behind his house. April 2009. (Photo by Raoni Maddalena)
Chevron contends that after its participation in the consortium ended in 1992, Texaco Petroleum negotiated a settlement agreement with Ecuador and Petroecuador whereby Texaco Petroleum assumed responsibility for specified environmental remediation projects in proportion to its minority ownership interest.
In 1998, in company says, "after the requisite remediation work was performed and independently validated, Ecuador and Petroecuador released Texaco Petroleum and its affiliates from further liability."
"Ecuador assumed responsibility for any remaining impact caused by the consortium's pre-1992 activities as well as any future impact caused by Petroecuador's own ongoing operations in the former concession area," Chevron said in a statement September 23.
"Since Texaco Petroleum's departure, Petroecuador has drilled over 400 new wells in the concession area, compared to the 321 wells that were drilled during the consortium," Chevron said. "Compounding the situation, Petroecuador's environmental record as an operator has been notoriously poor, with more than 1,400 oil spills since 2000 alone."
Chevron argues that, "The current Ecuador lawsuit is an effort to force Chevron to pay for Petroecuador's own misdeeds. In collusion with trial lawyers suing Chevron, the government of Ecuador has violated its contracts with Texaco Petroleum as well as protections afforded to investors under the United States-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty."
In September, Chevron filed an international arbitration claim against the government of Ecuador, citing violations of the country's obligations under the United States-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty, investment agreements, and international law.
The ongoing legal case, Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco, began in October 2003 in the Superior Court of Nueva Loja in Lago Agrio, Ecuador after it was transferred from a U.S. federal court at Chevron’s request.
In late August, as part of its campaign to discredit Ecuador's courts, Chevron posted secretly-recorded videotapes on YouTube that purport to show a bribery scheme involving a trial judge who has since been removed from the case. Since then, a number of inaccuracies and discrepancies in Chevron's account of the tapes have been uncovered by journalists, and the company has refused to make the witnesses or full tapes available.
Ecuador's government has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Chevron's legal team for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act on the theory the company created the tapes to undermine Ecuador's judicial system so it could evade a liability.
Chevron also is currently under investigation by Ecuador's Attorney General for its role in the bribery scandal.
Separately, Ecuador's national prosecutor in 2007 indicted two Chevron lawyers for lying about the results of a partial remediation used to secure a legal release.
Earlier this year, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced he was investigating Chevron to determine if company management was misleading shareholders regarding its financial risk in Ecuador. Incidentally, Cuomo was formerly married to Kerry Kennedy from from 1991 until 2003.
People of Lago Agrio march against Chevron and Texaco. October 5, 2009. (Photo courtesy Amazon Watch)
Over a period of 20 years, the Lago Agrio field produced 1.7 billion barrels of oil with a profit of $25 billion. According to Chevron, 95 percent of the profit from the consortium went to the government.
On October 5, a march was held in Lago Agrio to mark the retirement of Chevron CEO David O'Reilly. Hoisting a coffin filled with effigies of Chevron executives and lawyers on their shoulders, protesters marched to one of the oil waste pits that Chevron claims to have remediated. They lowered the coffin into the still oily ground, symbolically burying O'Reilly and his colleagues.
"We the people in Ecuador want to say that this supposed development is killing our way of life," said Justino Piaguaje, president of the Secoya people, at the march. "We are enclosed in this small territory that does not guarantee life to our people because these territories are contaminated."
The Secoya people are asking Chevron's new chief to come to Ecuador for a first-hand look at the contaminated rainforest.
"To Chevron's new president, we want to send a message that we need remediation urgently. It's not necessary for people to continue dying," said Piaguaje. "We want him, John Watson, to come to Ecuador and see for himself what has happened to our people."
The film "Crude," scheduled to be shown in 40 cities across the country and for a 2010 release in the United Kingdom, is rumored to be in contention for an Oscar nomination.
Attending the Washington, DC premiere will be Luis Yanza, a representative of the affected communities in Ecuador and a winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize; filmmaker Berlinger; and Steven Donziger, the American legal advisor to the communities. Yanza and Donziger are featured in the film.