Eye on the Amazon

Chevron's Massive Pollution in Ecuador Frames Death of Legendary Nurse Rosa Moreno

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Rosa Moreno, the legendary nurse in Ecuador who spent three decades treating children and others afflicted with cancer in the area of Chevron's oil pollution in the Amazon rainforest, has now herself succumbed to cancer, the Amazon Defense Coalition reported on Wednesday. One might reasonably question whether Chevron's refusal to clean up its pollution in Ecuador played a role in this tragic event.

Moreno, a splendid human being well-known to those of us who write The Chevron Pit, died this week in the Amazon village of San Carlos after a two-year battle with the illness. Moreno, 55, had hosted a long line of celebrities – including Brad Pitt and the actor Trudie Styler – in her tiny health clinic in the town of San Carlos as she tried to sensitize the world to the plight of people who won a historic $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in 2013.

Rosa Moreno in front of the San Carlos clinic

San Carlos is akin to Love Canal in the United States, only worse. For decades the village has been home to dozens of toxic waste Superfund sites that include open-air waste pits filled with oil sludge that that were built by Texaco in the 1970s and abandoned. Texaco installed pipes to run the toxic waste into nearby streams and rivers relied on by locals for drinking water. The pits were documented in a report on 60 Minutes and in the documentary Crude by acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger.

Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and inherited the liability from the disaster. Over the years, the company has used 60 law firms and roughly 2,000 lawyers to evade paying for the court-mandated clean-up.

Aside from the pits, one of which is pictured below, Texaco located a large oil separation station in the middle of town. The station systematically discharged billions of gallons of benzene-laced production waters into rivers and streams, creating a ticking time bomb that has killed or threatens to kill thousands of people. Chevron never even extended the courtesy of putting up fences around the hazardous waste sites to keep animals out and to warn people away.

Oil pit built by Texaco in the 1970s and abandoned by Chevron near San Carlos, where Rosa Moreno lived

Moreno was a bright light in the middle of what might be the most contaminated town on earth. From a press release from the Amazon Defense Coalition, the grass roots organization that brought the historic lawsuit against Chevron:

Moreno was mostly known as a person who tried against all odds to stave off the impending health disaster with her compassionate care of young children. Her clinic was a short walk from her house, and she was often found there seven days per week. Moreno meticulously kept a handwritten log of people in the clinic who had died, often without receiving proper treatment given the paucity of doctors in the area. The list in recent years had grown to dozens of names – many young children – even though only 2,000 people lived in the town. Each name on the list had a date of birth and date of death scrawled in Moreno's distinctive script.

Steven Donziger, the longtime U.S. legal advisor to the affected Ecuadorian communities who has been targeted by Chevron for his work to hold the company accountable, laid some of the blame for Moreno's death at the feet of the company:

I firmly believe Rosa and many others like her in San Carlos would not have died had Chevron mets its legal and moral responsibilities to the people of Ecuador. Rosa's death, like those of many others in Ecuador, was entirely preventable. Chevron should provide compensation to her family and medicine and diagnostic equipment for the San Carlos clinic, in addition to remediating the abysmal environmental conditions that continue to put innocent lives at risk.

Moreno's legacy will live on in many ways.

Many of the celebrities who visited Moreno in her clinic took action to alleviate the human suffering and to protest Chevron's outrageous behavior. They include Styler, who has written articles to call attention to Chevron's human rights abuses and who started a project with UNICEF that has delivered clean water to numerous villages in the affected area.

Rosa Moreno and colleague Mariana Jimenez in San Francisco

Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA), the only U.S. Congressman to visit the devastated area, toured the health clinic in 2008 and then vividly described the horrific conditions created by Chevron in a moving letter to President-elect Obama. Bianca Jagger went to Chevron's shareholder meeting and gave the company's CEO hell in a blistering speech. Berlinger's film included Moreno and scenes from her clinic.

Karen Hinton, the former press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, has hounded Chevron for its irresponsible behavior in Ecuador in a series of blogs published on The Huffington Post. And Donziger – a classmate of Barack Obama from Harvard Law School – has been a thorn in Chevron's side for more than two decades, as his own writings illustrate.

If you have any doubt about the cause of Moreno's death, look no further than the numerous independent studies that demonstrate Chevron's toxic legacy has produced skyrocketing cancer rates in the area where she lived. One study from a former Rand Corporation analyst predicts 9,000 deaths in the affected area in the coming years if Chevron refuses to remediate the disaster.

For more on Texaco and Chevron's dastardly behavior in Ecuador, see this video.

Although Chevron's management team surely never thought it possible, Rosa was among the many impoverished Ecuadorians who banded together and fought for years before finally holding the company legally accountable in 2011 after an eight-year trial. In a paradigmatic breakthrough in the human rights area, several prominent corporate law and litigation firms around the world signed up to represent the villagers. And in 2013, Ecuador's Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the trial court ruling in a 222-page decision that meticulously documented the overwhelming evidence against Chevron.

Although the lawsuit originally was filed in the U.S., the trial was held in Ecuador at Chevron's request and the company willingly accepted jurisdiction there. Of course, Chevron thought it could engineer a political dismissal by pressuring Ecuador's government. That unethical strategy backfired.

Chevron's continued obstinance – it sold off its assets in Ecuador during the trial and has vowed to fight "until hell freezes over" – forced Rosa and her friends to try to seize company assets in Canada to pay for their clean-up. That country's Supreme Court recently backed the villagers in a unanimous opinion. Chevron is now facing its own ticking time bomb in court.

Rosa, your legacy will inspire the affected communities and their allies around the world to fight on until Chevron pays the court judgment in full and the responsible individuals are held accountable for their misconduct.

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