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Chevron fights massive lawsuit in Ecuador

A case about responsibility for cleaning up a toxic drilling site could cost the company billions and send a chill through the industry.

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Girls do the family laundry in the river by their home in Shushufindi, Ecuador. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit say many local rivers have been contaminated by the oil industry. A court battle continues over who should pay to clean them up.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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For over a decade, Judid Angamarca lived in a wooden shack on stilts next to an old waste pit, where for years oil sludge from drilling was dumped.

The patch of land, the size of a tennis court, was cleaned and covered with earth in 1996. But it stubbornly refused to produce anything she tried to grow. Her three children played in the grass as babies; her animals roamed around, too. The residents living in and around San Carlos have long lived among the wells, pipes, and waste pits laid down for the oil bonanza in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

But two years ago, from a six-inch hole, oil waste emerged – and so did Ms. Angamarca’s doubts about her dead pigs and chickens and her children’s rashes and coughs. The government relocated her family to a new home recently.

“You get mad, you want to leave [the area], but you have nowhere to go,” says Angamarca.

San Carlos sits in the middle of more than 100 wells drilled in the Sacha field by Texaco, which pumped oil as the sole operator of a consortium here from 1972 until 1990. At the time, it was one of the highest concentrations of wells in the Amazonian region, and today this remote town finds itself in the middle of what could be the largest damage claim against the oil industry in its history.

The landmark lawsuit, which began in 1993 in New Yo rk and is now in an Ecuadorean court in this jungle region, alleges that Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001, knowingly unleashed toxins across an estimated 1,700 square miles – roughly the size of Rhode Island.

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