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In Ecuador, High Stakes in Case Against Chevron

After 16 years, attorneys are wrapping up a landmark pollution lawsuit brought by Ecuadoran Indians against U.S. oil company Chevron Texaco.

The plaintiffs said that much of their strongest evidence lies in the waste pits surrounding the 356 wells that Texaco put into operation from 1967, when the company first struck oil, until 1990, when Petroecuador took over.

Chevron acknowledges that Texaco used unlined pits but argues that the use of such holding ponds is standard in the industry, including in the United States, according to Craig, the spokesman.

Unlined pits are indeed common in Texas, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees land use by oil firms. But commission officials said that in Texas, such pits are used to hold mud and heavy metals temporarily, before they are re-injected into the ground or otherwise disposed of.

The plaintiffs say Texaco did not re-inject the waste in Ecuador but instead used the shoddily designed pits for permanent storage. In 2001, Ecuador's General Controller, an office that investigates malfeasance, said that waste had oozed from pits and that Texaco's cleanup had fallen short. The plaintiffs also say that the cleanup covered only a few of the polluted sites and did not include groundwater or streams.

Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman, said that government inspectors later found flaws in the controller's report but that the report was never corrected. Chevron says the government-mandated cleanup it carried out at 161 pits and seven spill sites was effective, entailing removal of oil from soil, incineration of debris and revegetation.

These days, the ponds at the center of the debate have drawn Donald Moncayo, an activist who works with the plaintiffs. His specialty is taking visitors on what he calls "toxic tours."

After a walk along a forest trail, he stopped at a pool that had been used by Texaco and poked a long stick into the black sludge. Waste also dripped out through a drainage pipe and ran down to a creek below. "As you can see, there is no protection," Moncayo said. "All these waters wind up in the rivers."

Among those who have spent their lives next to wells, waste pits and polluted waterways is Carmen Chamba, 54, who said she has suffered four miscarriages.

Chamba happens to live near an installation now operated by Petroecuador. But it was Texaco that first ran production near her home, so she says the U.S. company is liable.

"They need to pay me for my loss," she said.

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