RICHMOND -- Mayor Gayle McLaughlin led about 25 protesters in a Tuesday morning demonstration at City Hall denouncing Chevron and pledging the city's solidarity with Ecuadorean plaintiffs in their legal battles with the energy giant.
"What is really at the heart of this case is human rights, justice and environmental protection," McLaughlin said.
Tuesday's news conference, which followed McLaughlin's tour of environmental damage in Ecuador last month, came as a trial starts in federal court in New York. The oil company is seeking to stop indigenous villagers from using U.S. courts to enforce an $18 billion judgment they won in Ecuador.
McLaughlin, 61, the nation's only Green Party mayor of a city of more than 100,000 residents, in September toured tiny jungle villages, met with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and dipped her hands in chemical pools, or "piscinas," holding byproducts of petrochemical processing. McLaughlin linked the impacts in Ecuador to those in Richmond, which has seen a series of accidents and emissions over the years at Chevron's Richmond refinery. The city has its own pending suit against the energy giant for damages stemming from an Aug. 6, 2012 fire at the refinery that sent thousands to area hospitals.
"I personally witnessed the abuses and contamination in Ecuador," McLaughlin said. "We in Richmond have felt the dirty hand of Chevron as well."
The oil company Texaco moved its infrastructure out of Ecuador in 1992. McLaughlin and the plaintiffs assert that Chevron acquired the Ecuadorean facilities, and its liabilities, when the two companies merged in 2001. The Amazon Defense Coalition, a group of indigenous tribes, sued, alleging that Texaco had fouled groundwater and created increased cancer rates by cutting costs rather than properly storing toxins. Chevron maintains it has never operated in Ecuador and that the sites McLaughlin visited are run by Petroecuador, a state-owned oil company.
An Ecuadorean court awarded the coalition $18 billion from Chevron in 2011.
Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson issued a statement Tuesday noting that prior U.S. federal courts have found that the trial in Ecuador was flawed and ripped McLaughlin for ignoring the city's biggest taxpayer.
"Chevron has twice offered to meet with the mayor to explain the facts of the situation in Ecuador," Robertson wrote in an email. "We've received no response. It is unfortunate for the citizens of Richmond that their mayor continues to align herself with unscrupulous plaintiffs' lawyers and their hedge fund backers rather than focusing on Richmond's pressing issues."
On Sept. 20 and Oct. 9, Chevron officials sent McLaughlin letters requesting to discuss issues surrounding the Ecuador case, warning her that she has spread "misinformation" about the nature of Chevron's Ecuadorean holdings and asserting that there "is no increased risk of cancer in Ecuador's Amazon region."
McLaughlin acknowledged receiving the correspondence from Chevron but said she has done her own research and is convinced of the validity of the accusations.
"I do not abide by (Chevron's) lies," McLaughlin said.
The federal trial is the latest chapter in a decades-long dispute over environmental contamination that occurred between 1964 and 1992 at an oil field in Ecuador operated by Texaco.
Chevron says Texaco cleaned up its share of waste before turning the field over to state-owned Petroecuador.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.