Pin the tail on the deep pockets

Two serious pollution cases at opposite ends of the size spectrum hit the news today in San Francisco. Last night an elegant gathering at the Opera House saw two Ecuadorian "activists" awarded $150,000 apiece for the Goldman Environmental Prize. Lawyer Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and community organizer Luis Yanza have been suing Chevron over the dumping of oil-contaminated water into pits in the upper Amazon.

Another opportunity for wealthy San Franciscans to congratulate themselves on their care for the environment, dress up, and have a good time excoriating evil corporations. But this story is bit complicated, and Chevron is fighting back. Tyche Henricks of the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

The roots of the lawsuit against Chevron - in which Yanza organized thousands of plaintiffs and Fajardo is a lead attorney - date back to 1964, when Texaco began pumping oil in a remote corner of northern Ecuador, in a partnership with Petroecuador, the state oil company. The suit alleges that Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001, dumped 18 billion gallons of crude oil-tainted water in 1,000 unlined toxic waste pits.

The company left Ecuador in 1992 and carried out a $40 million cleanup, which the Ecuadoran government approved. Chevron maintains it has done its fair share. And it says Petroecuador, which continues to pump oil in the region, bears responsibility for the remainder of the problem.

It is far more lucrative to blame the American corporation than to examine the state-owned oil company's role. It's all about finding the deep pocketed defendant with little local sympathy. And having sympathetic "activists" in America proclaim the righteousness of your cause can't hurt.

"We believe they were misled," said Chevron spokesman David Samson, who also retained a room at the Fairmont to be available to the press. "We tried to reach out to the Goldman Foundation when we heard they might be in consideration, but we were stiff-armed. No one ever cared to hear our side of the story."

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the size spectrum and the opposite side of San Francisco Bay, a backyard pollution problem was discovered in Oakland when neighbors complained of a chemical smell, and it is proving difficult to find any deep pockets. A person unknown has dumped about 120 gallons of paint, thinner, and other toxic substances in the backyard of a house in East Oakland, and area notorious for crime, drug dealing, and drive-by shootings. The Chron's Chip Johnson writes

One occupant claims to be the property owner, but a title search conducted by authorities yielded a different name, Griffin said. A Chronicle search of property records turned up yet another name.

Because of penalties that could exceed the value of the property, Griffin is working hard to unravel the ownership mystery before the owner disappears to avoid punishment.

From the samples Griffin has seen, it appears as if the pit had been used for some time. But he said he could not make a final determination until the results of tests are ready.

The emergency response alone is expected to cost about $200,000, and depending on how deeply the pollutants have seeped into the ground, the cost of the cleanup could be a serious multiple of that initial figure. The property owner is ultimately on the hook, but the value of the property is likely a fraction of the ultimate cost, and if no other assets of the owner are available to cover the costs, the public will bear the costs, one way or another.

There are toxic time bombs buried all over the world by people who either didn't know or didn't care that burying toxic substances endangers water supplies, the environment, and people. The costs can be horrendous, financially and otherwise.
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