Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has played out over days and weeks. Now that BP’s “top kill” project has failed, we’re looking at weeks and months; by the time relief wells are completed in August, allowing the company to plug the original with cement, as many as 136 million gallons of oil will have escaped into the ocean. Once that threshold is crossed, the time scale of the disaster will shift again, to months and years, as the U.S. government tries to force BP to clean up the worst oil spill in American history, repair the environmental damage, and compensate people along the gulf coast (and maybe even the east coast) whose livelihoods will have been destroyed. To judge from the company’s desperate PR spin to date—blaming the accident on Transocean, the company that owned the oil rig, and lowballing the severity of the spill, now said to be four times as great as previously estimated—we can probably look forward to many more years of BP clouding the water.
The current disaster makes Joe Berlinger’s documentary Crude—which screens on Monday at Facets as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival—more timely than ever. Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) spent three years tracking the investigative phase of Aguinda v. Texaco, a 1993 class-action suit filed against the U.S. oil company (since absorbed by Chevron) by 30,000 Ecuadorans from the Amazon rain forest. The suit alleges that during the company’s 28-year partnership with state-owned Petroecuador, Texaco dumped 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic waste into the rain forest, leaving behind a 1,700-square-mile zone plagued by cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. By the time Berlinger got to the story in 2005, Texaco/Chevron had already spent nine years fighting to get the trial moved from New York to Ecuador, and it’s still going on now, more than a year after the movie premiered at Sundance. The corporate tactics of denial, delay, and obfuscation documented in Crude are infuriating in their own right, but they also provide a preview of what we might expect from this new tragedy.
Early in the movie there’s a shot of someone lifting a dead, oil-coated bird out of the water, a familiar sight these days. But the suffering of the people in the Ecuadoran rain forest is far more horrific than anything we’ve seen so far around the gulf: when environmentalists call this part of the world the “Amazon Chernobyl,” they’re not exaggerating. At a health clinic in San Carlos, children who’ve bathed in a local stream show up covered with a scaly rash, and at a community meeting of the Secoya tribe, a woman cradles a child with eyes so far apart she looks like a space monster. A Cofan man recalls how his young son drank polluted water, began vomiting blood, and died the next day. And a woman from San Carlos whose home is ten meters from an oil production station reveals that both she and her teenage daughter have been diagnosed with cancer; needing money for their treatments, she’s bought chickens to raise, but they keep dying. The camera follows her young son as he carries two dead birds into the brush and tosses them away.
With images like these, Crude might seem like a standard eco-indictment, but Berlinger has taken pains to address the case in all its political complexity. Pablo Fajardo, the young Ecuadoran attorney who heads the case against Chevron, and Luis Yanza, whose Amazon Defense Front represents the plaintiffs, seem to be motivated by simple humanity (they’re introduced, in a news clip, accepting the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco). But behind them stands Steven Donziger, an enormously savvy New York lawyer who knows how to work the media and the celebrity culture—his big coup is enlisting the support of Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting. And behind him stands Joseph Kohn, a Philadelphia attorney whose firm is bankrolling the case and stands to earn millions if the Ecuadoran court rules against Chevron. All these people seem sincere in wanting to help the plaintiffs, but Crude recognizes that the daunting enterprise of suing a U.S. petroleum giant necessarily draws in people with all sorts of other agendas.
By contrast, Chevron has only one agenda—to defend itself—and its primary tactic has been relentless, almost reflexive denial. As William Langewiesche wrote in a 2007 story for Vanity Fair, Chevron “denies that the judge is fair, denies that the plaintiffs have legitimate complaints, denies that their soil and water samples are meaningful, denies that the methods the company used to extract oil in the past were substandard, denies that it contaminated the forest, denies that the forest is contaminated, denies that there is a link between the drinking water and high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and skin disease, denies that unusual health problems have been demonstrated—and, for added measure, denies that it bears responsibility for any environmental damage that might after all be found to exist.”
Chevron also denied Berlinger access to anyone in the company until he was already editing the documentary, when it finally dispatched its Latin American counsel and its chief environmental scientist to sit for interviews.
As Crude reveals, the company’s lawyers are skilled at obscuring the issue and throwing up procedural roadblocks. As the judge and the two legal teams prepare to inspect some of the alleged contamination sites, Aldolfo Callejas, who leads the defense for Chevron, uses his opening remarks to direct attention away from the plaintiffs and toward their backers: “It is sad to see how the people financing this trial use my people, use my countrymen. The foreign financiers who live comfortably in Manhattan, in New York City. . . . We are not lying, your honor, when we say that this is a business. It is sponsored in order to get a profit!” Later the attorneys persuade another judge in Quito to order a judicial inspection of the laboratory doing soil and water analyses for the case, a tactic Donziger foils by showing up at the judge’s office with news cameras in tow. When the judge presiding over the case orders an end to the judicial inspections and appoints an independent expert to prepare a “global assessment” of the region, a Chevron lawyer shows up on the scene to try to manipulate what samples he’ll analyze.
For Chevron, though, the most promising angle—and the one most pertinent to us, given BP’s cozy relationship with the U.S. Minerals Management Service—is the company’s long collaboration with the Ecuadoran government. Chevron has maintained that any poisoning of the environment occurred after 1992, when its concession expired and Petroecuador took complete ownership of the oil fields. Three years later Chevron carried out a $40 million environmental remediation of selected sites, in return for which the government absolved it of any responsibility for future claims. The plaintiffs argue that the deal was fraudulent and the cleanup mainly cosmetic, a position that gained greater traction after the left-leaning Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador in 2006 and threw his weight behind the plaintiffs. Now, having spent nine years insisting that the case belonged in the Ecuadoran justice system, Chevron says it can’t get a fair trial in Ecuador and has lobbied the U.S. government to revoke its trade agreements with the country if the case isn’t dismissed.
Chevron has argued that it’s being targeted because it has deep pockets, yet as Crude makes clear, those deep pockets are ultimately its best defense. Conferring with Kohn in Philadelphia, Donziger admits that the plaintiffs are $100,000 in the red and points out—for the cameras, obviously, since Kohn would understand this already—that “part of Texaco’s strategy is to bankrupt us. I mean, they don’t want this to end, and they know that that’s one of their advantages.” Very few movies deal with this reality (one notable exception is Steven Zaillian’s 1998 adaptation of Jonathan Harr’s nonfiction book, A Civil Action), but any legal battle against a giant corporation inevitably turns into a financial battle. The longer Chevron can prolong this one, the more chance it has of winning; on the other side, the more Donziger turns up the heat in the media, the more money he costs Chevron.
What Berlinger doesn’t reveal in Crude is that he was enticed to make the documentary by Donziger, who admired his skillful handling of complex legal stories (Berlinger codirected Brother’s Keeper, about an alleged murder in rural New York, and the superb Paradise Lost, about the West Memphis Three). This may have seemed like a smart move to Donziger—for all its even-handedness, Crude is undeniably sympathetic to the plaintiffs—but it could wind up backfiring. Last month, a U.S. district court judge granted a petition from Chevron to subpoena more than 600 hours of raw footage shot for the movie. According to the New York Times, Chevron “pointed to a scene from ‘Crude’ in which representatives for the plaintiffs . . . take part in a focus group with a neutral court expert, and said that other footage shot by Mr. Berlinger could show further instances of improper collaboration.” Berlinger’s attorneys denounced this to the Times as a “fishing expedition” and asked the judge to stay the subpoena while Berlinger appeals. If Crude ultimately gives Chevron the evidence it needs to get the case dismissed, it will prove that, in a situation like this, everyone gets pulled into the slick.
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