March 03, 2010: Appeals Court to Decide if Oil Giant Will Face Suit in U.S. for Massive Environmental Pollution in Amazon

Publish Date: 
Thursday, April 12, 2012

Amazon Watch and EarthRights International

Atossa Soltani 202-256-9795
Marco Simons 917-696-3304

Appeals Court to Decide if Oil Giant Will Face Suit in U.S. for Massive Environmental Pollution in Amazon

Indigenous Achuar From the Peruvian Amazon Face Off
Against Occidental Petroleum Over Destruction of Pristine Rainforest

(Los Angeles, CA) - A key hearing was held yesterday in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the landmark environmental and public health case brought by indigenous Peruvian Achuar and the U.S. NGO Amazon Watch against Los Angeles-based oil giant Occidental Petroleum (OXY). The appeals court's decision will likely determine whether OXY will have to defend its 30 year-old legacy of massive pollution in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon in a courtroom in Los Angeles, just miles from its world headquarters, or whether the case will move to Peru.

Commenting on the importance of today's hearing for the ultimate outcome of the case, Lily la Torre, Peruvian indigenous rights lawyer and the Achuar's legal advisor stated, "The plaintiffs are fully prepared to litigate this case, here in the U.S., or in Peru, and OXY will be held liable for their decades of toxic contamination and for causing the Achuar people so much harm and suffering."

The case concerns OXY's environmental practices in the Corrientes River Basin in northern Peru. During its operations, which began in the early 1970s, OXY discharged billions of barrels of untreated wastewater into local streams, caused numerous spills and abandoned many un-remediated toxic waste sites in Achuar territory, leading to an epidemic of lead and cadmium poisoning and other ill effects on the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous people.

The groundbreaking 2007 report, A Legacy of Harm: Occidental Petroleum in Indigenous Territory in the Peruvian Amazon, by EarthRights International, Racimos de Ungurahui, and Amazon Watch found that OXY dumped nine billion barrels of untreated "formation waters", a by-product of the oil drilling process containing a variety of toxins and carcinogens, directly into the Achuar's pristine tropical rainforest territories. Other main findings of the report include:

  • OXY dumped an average of 850,000 barrels per day of toxic oil by-products directly into rivers and streams used by the Achuar for drinking, bathing, washing, and fishing.
  • OXY used earthen pits, prohibited by U.S. standards, to store drilling fluids, crude oil, and crude by-products. These pits, dug directly into the ground, were open, unlined, and routinely overflowed onto the ground and into surface waters, leaching into the surrounding soil and groundwater.
  • OXY violated several international rights norms - including several in the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights - in its actions on Achuar territory, including the right to life, the right to health, the right to a healthy environment, and indigenous people's rights.
  • OXY violated Peru's General Water Law and General Health Law, as well as environmental statutes meant to be applied in the hydrocarbon sector.

Moving the case to Peru may not serve OXY's interests. "When Chevron was sued for similar toxic pollution in the Amazon, they succeeded in moving the case to Ecuador," said Atossa Soltani, Executive Director of Amazon Watch, who are plaintiffs in the U.S. case against OXY. "Now Chevron has a $27 billion damages claim in the Ecuadorian court in a decision that is likely to go against the company in the coming months. A similar protracted litigation may well afflict OXY if the case moves to Peru."

Marco Simons, Legal Director of EarthRights International who is counsel for the plaintiffs and argued the appeal, added: "OXY is legally responsible for the contamination of Achuar territory. We are fully prepared to try this case in front of a U.S. jury, and if the case moves to Peru, we will assist the Achuar in holding OXY accountable in a Peruvian court."

The Achuar case, Maynas Carijano v. Occidental Petroleum, No. CV-07-5068, was filed in May 2007. In April of 2008, Judge Philip Gutierrez of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the case is more appropriately heard in Peru under the legal doctrine of forum non conveniens. The plaintiffs and their counsel, including EarthRights International, the Venice firm Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman LLP and San Francisco lawyer Natalie Bridgeman, argued the appeal of the District Court's decision today in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The Achuar and other indigenous peoples are seeking justice in the face of giant corporations that cause harm to their people, their territories and our planet," said Lily la Torre. "Let's not turn our back on them. After all, the issues of corporate responsibility and ethics affect all of us."

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision is likely to be issued in late 2010 or 2011.

For background information see A Legacy of Harm report or a short video narrated by Daryl Hannah.

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