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Chevron vs. Ecuadorean activists

Barring delays, an epic legal battle is expected to be decided this year.

Ecuadorean Indians march to the Superior Court of Justice in the Amazonian town of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, Oct. 21, 2003, at the start of a landmark trial where indigenous rainforest people are seeking to force Chevron-Texaco to clean up the contamination left behind from Texaco's oil drilling operations in the Ecuadorean Amazon. (Lou Dematteis/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — In the middle of the Amazon rain forest, an epic 15-year-long legal battle pitting Chevron Corp. against Ecuadorean environmental activists is finally drawing to a close.

Billions are at stake in the lawsuit, which is being argued before a judge in a ramshackle courtroom in the Ecuadorean oil boom town of Lago Agrio, located just across the border from Colombia. If Chevron loses, the San Ramon, Calif.-based firm could be ordered to pay up to $27 billion in reparations — potentially the largest civil damages award ever imposed.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by Ecuadorean and U.S. attorneys, claim to speak for a broader community of about 30,000 residents living in the Amazon region in northeastern Ecuador. They allege that oil production by Texaco, which operated in Ecuador from 1964 to 1990 and was acquired by Chevron in 2001, poisoned their lands, rivers and ground water with toxic chemicals.

They also say that the contamination forced Indian communities to relocate and led to a surge in cases of cancer and miscarriages.

“This is probably the world’s worst oil-related contamination on the planet at this moment,” said Steven Donziger, a New York-based attorney representing the plaintiffs.

“It is horrendous,” Donziger, who  has made more than 100 trips to the region, said in a telephone interview. “It is at least 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

Chevron, which has no operations in Ecuador, argues that Texaco carried out a successful clean-up of 160 waste pits in the 1990s that cost the company $40 million. Texaco was then released from any future liability for environmental damages by the Ecuadorean government.

Chevron portrays itself as the victim of opportunistic attorneys, a corrupt legal system, and Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, who has spoken out against the American firm.

“This is fraud,” said Donald Campbell, a Chevron spokesman, during a recent interview in Bogota. “It’s the product of collusion between the president of Ecuador and U.S. lawyers who are looking for a big payday.”