How Chevron Polluted the Amazon and Fought Environmental Lawyer Steven Donziger

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 pits16 billion gallons toxic wastewater were dumped into rivers. Cancers and miscarriages rose among local residents who bathed and drank in these waters. Steven Donziger represents the group. Indigenous peoples sued the companyChevron purchased the company in 2000. It won more than $9 million. Chevron, however ignored Ecuadorian courts, and took its case all the way to New York. There, it found a friendly Judge who was willing to help it achieve its goals of not paying for Donziger and to destroy him. Chevron, when contacted for comment, stated that it had paid around $40 million for environmental remediation. It also accused Donziger as a disbarred racketeer convicted for criminal contempt. Donziger however, provides details that tell a different story. In this exclusive interview, we speak with TruthoutDonziger discusses the Amazon’s ongoing disaster, his advocacy, and why we must continue to fight corporate polluters.

Eve Ottenberg – What did Texaco do with Lago Agrio’s?

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 out of the norm and resulted in massive oil pollution. Number one, they drilled for crude oil in an improper manner. When drilling for oil, the drilling muds rise from thousands of feet below the ground. These muds contain heavy metals and synthetic chemicals that can be cancer-causing and extremely dangerous to the environment, animals, and humans.

Chevron disposed of it improperly. Instead, they dumped it in the environment by digging large pits out from the jungle floor, and then dumping the cancer-causing chemicals there for permanent waste disposal. They didn’t line the pits. They also inserted pipes into pit sides to drain the contents into streams and rivers. This was a crucial step for Indigenous peoples and farmers who depended on the water for drinking, 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 that there were 900 of them, and maybe more.

There are roughly 1,000 pits. Numerous peer-reviewed health studies by respected academics have shown extremely high incidences in cancers, including children’s leukemia. This is a rare occurrence in the world. It also includes ovarian cancer, and other cancers that are related to oil and the toxic substances in it. A large number of miscarriages is also common, which is much higher than normal.

Chevron also did two other things that were completely against 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 dumped it into streams and rivers that local communities depended on for drinking water. These cancer-causing substances were dumped into beautiful Amazon rivers every day.

How long did they do it?

They did it for 25 year. They began in the 1960s. It continued until the 1990s when they moved to Ecuador. For well over two decades, they worked seven days per week, 24 hours a night, on a daily basis. Four million gallons per day of cancer-causing oil washed into waterways located in the middle of Indigenous ancestral lands.

The last thing they did was to flare the natural gas from the wells into the atmosphere. Flared natural gas contains poisons, dioxins and other toxins that can 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. It is impossible to capture rainwater, even though it could be used as an alternative to river water. Ironically, Chevron poisoned the most beautiful ecosystems in Earth within a matter of years. Thousands lost their access to clean water and other resources, including food sources that would sustain life and all the ecosystems. The area’s Indigenous peoples, as well as farmer communities, do not have the funds to buy bottled water. Chevron decided, out of what I would call pure greed and focus on profits, that tens or thousands of people had to suffer and die in order to increase its already high profits. And it has refused court orders to do so.

What did Chevron do for you?

I worked with a team from Ecuador and other countries to resolve a case regarding pollution in Ecuador. Chevron wanted Ecuador to handle the case and they accepted Ecuadorian jurisdiction. After they lost the case and had enough evidence, they fled to the United States. I am a New Yorker and they began to sue me in civil court. [Chevron]I was sued 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. This was an intimidation play to get my attention, to intimidate others on our teams or work on our teams, and to win by corrupt means something they would never win on merits.

Chevron engaged with these absurd legal attacks, which were facilitated by a specific U.S. federal Judge, who has investments Chevron and is pro-corporate ideologue, 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 and got the court to order that I pay them literally millions of dollar to reimburse them for their legal fees in this bogus case. I was basically bankrupted by this. 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. They convinced Judge Kaplan that I had to give them my cellphone and computer, which contain troves containing confidential information. Judge Kaplan charged me for criminal contempt of the court when I appealed that order. He ordered that I hand over my confidential communications and requested that I appeal an unprecedented order. Kaplan put me in my house with an ankle bracelet while this appeal was being considered. The regular federal prosecutor dismissed his contempt charges. Kaplan appointed a private Chevron law company to prosecute me under the U.S. government’s name, which is again unprecedented. They sent me to Danbury federal prison, Connecticut for 45 days during my three-year home detention. 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. Every day, people are dying and the Ecuador government doesn’t want 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 took my right 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 that I was given a hearing by Kaplan, even though Kaplan refused to allow me to testify in defense of me and instead paid $2 million to a corrupt witness who lied about me. So, I was expelled without a hearing in America.

Six different appellate courts in Ecuador and 28 different judges in Canada and Ecuador affirmed the judgment in Ecuador. This includes the Supreme Courts of both nations. This was all a subterfugee by Chevron 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 New York bar that governs lawyer licensing is completely dominated in corporate law firms, including Gibson Dunn, to whom Chevron paid hundreds upon millions of dollars to detain me.

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 trying to bring attention to the humanitarian emergency so that immediate relief can be sent to this area. I’m doing my best to help them. They are also trying to protect all the advocates and lawyers who are involved in the case, as attacks by the fossil fuel sector on advocates is a major issue that affects all environmental activists and campaigners around the globe. We cannot live in a society that allows corporations to lock up people for being human rights advocates and 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. We will not survive if we can’t confront the major polluters. The attack on me is intended to intimidate thousands, if certainly millions of people around world. We must protect me going forward in order 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 must understand the stakes. They want me to be used as a symbol to suppress the advocacy needed to save the planet. We can’t allow them to succeed. The work goes on.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.