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Lago Agrio, Nueva Loja, Ecuador

The Graphic: Oil pollution in Ecuador

Image credit: Andrés Medina | Unsplash

A devastating historic oil spill in Ecuador remains a cause of concern. With data, E&T shows why.

Texaco’s operation in Lago Agrio, where the company dumped toxic oil waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, is nowhere to be found among the top oil disasters in history. Yet, it should be. Some even call it the biggest toxic spill in history. It’s also an important case study where justice against big oil corporations failed.   

At least 18 billion US gallons (68 billion litres) of toxic waste and 17  million gallons of crude oil was dumped on sensitive rainforest soil in an area spanning 4,400 square kilometres (1,700 square miles).   

Chevron, the company that now owns the firm Texaco – which admitted to the damage it caused between 1964 and 1992 – was cleared of responsibility by the international tribunal of The Hague in 2018. This means charges of billions of dollars for indemnity that could have set a precedent in holding big oil accountable was lost and sends a strong signal to the rest of the industry.   

If the toxic waste Texaco dumped is compared to the amount of oil released in other major oil disasters it’s about 85 times the size of the pollution for BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which the US Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) called the “largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations”. Thankfully, oil tanker accidents have become less common since the 1970s.

The Graphic 1601

Image credit: E&T

 

To this day, the situation often dubbed as the ‘Chernobyl of the Amazon’ affects people’s health. Academic research found that cancer rates are higher among locals. At least six academic studies between 2001 and 2010 expressed concern, one by the US National Institutes of Health. It’s largely indigenous people who lived near ground zero oil sites, near pits where the waste was dumped and within oil blocks. Oil fields are still dangerously close to human settlements (see map). Meanwhile, Chevron states on its website that the company is “defending itself against false allegations that it is responsible for alleged environmental and social harms in the Amazon region of Ecuador”.  

Even without Texaco and Chevron, the oil pollution continues, as recent scientific studies show. For this area of the north-eastern Ecuadorian Amazon, which is rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage, researchers from the University of Toulouse counted 464 spill events releasing an estimated 10,000 tonnes of crude oil between 2001 and 2011, long after Texaco left the country.   

Nick Meynen, the environmental and economic justice policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, says there’s a need for “a legally binding UN treaty on transnational corporations and human rights” to address these issues of pollution.

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