Indigenous Peruvians win Amazon pollution payout from US oil giant

Date of publication: 
5 March 2015

Members of the indigenous Achuar tribe from the Peruvian Amazon have won an undisclosed sum from Occidental Petroleum in an out-of-court settlement after a long-running legal battle in the US courts.

They sued the company in 2007, alleging it knowingly caused pollution which caused premature deaths, birth defects and damaged their habitat.

It is the first time a company from the United States has been sued in a US court for pollution it caused in another country, Marco Simons, the legal director of EarthRights International, which represented the Achuar people in the lawsuit, said. It set a “precedent” which he said will be “significant for future cases and has already been cited by other courts in the United States”.

The case was initially dismissed in 2008 when the federal district court agreed with Occidental Petroleum that the case should be heard in Peru rather than Los Angeles, the plaintiffs successfully appealed to overturn this decision, and the US supreme court refused to hear the company’s arguments in 2013.

The funds provided by the company through a trust will be used for health, education and nutrition projects run by a collective of five Achuar communities (Antioquía, José Olaya, Nueva Jerusalén, Pampa Hermosa and Saukí) that filed the lawsuit. All come from the Corrientes river basin in Peru’s northern Amazon.

One of the plaintiffs, Adolfina Sandi alleges her 11-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter died after drinking water from the contaminated river.

“We didn’t know the impact of the pollution and the company never told us. My son and daughter died vomiting blood. They never confirmed to us why they had died,” she said. Speaking her native Achuar language, Sandi said she was grateful for the settlement even though her children would not benefit from the projects.
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LA-based Occidental Petroleum drilled for oil in Peru’s block 1-AB – one of the country’s biggest oil concessions – between 1971 and 2000, during which time it spewed out around 9bn gallons of untreated “produced waters” containing heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into the rivers and streams without regard for international standards, according to a report by the NGO Amazon Watch.

In 2006, a study by Peru’s health ministry in seven affected communities revealed that all but two of the 199 people tested had levels of cadmium in their blood above safe levels. In the same year, the Achuar seized oil wells, forcing the government and the Argentinian company Pluspetrol which took over the block in 2000 to remediate the environmental damage by reinjecting the production waters.

But conditions have not improved with Pluspetrol. The Peruvian government declared an environmental emergency in the Corrientes basin in 2013. The company, which operates oil and gas fields across Peru’s Amazon, is challenging nearly $13m in environmental fines through Peru’s courts, according to the country’s environmental supervision agency.

Arli Sandi, an Achuar leader from Saukí, said the communities would not be afraid to file a similar lawsuit against Pluspetrol.

In January, Achuar, Kichwa and Urarina communities seized Pluspetrol oil wells in Peru’s northern Amazon demanding the company pay compensation for contamination and the use of their territories.


Peru indigenous groups settle U.S. court claims with Occidental

By Reuters –

5 March 2015

LIMA – Indigenous villagers in Peru have reached a negotiated settlement with Occidental Petroleum Corp , which they had sued for allegedly polluting their lands over three decades, the two sides said on Thursday.

The oil producer agreed to fund development programs for the five Achuar communities in Peru’s Amazon, which first filed a lawsuit in 2007, said Marco Simons, who represented them in court for the not-for-profit group EarthRights International.

A joint statement between the two parties was read by Simons at a news briefing in Lima. Occidental had no further comment other than what was in the statement.

A confidentiality clause prohibits the parties from revealing the size of the negotiated settlement, but both sides said they were pleased. Occidental has denied charges its operations in Peru polluted the environment.

“We’ve reached our objective of teaching the company a lesson,” said Achuar villager Adolfina Garcia at a news conference in Lima, the Peruvian capital.

The communities had alleged Occidental spilled oil and dumped toxic waste while operating Peru’s biggest oil block, triggering widespread health problems.

Garcia said she believes her 11-year-old son died because he drank water from a river polluted by Occidental.

The plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in a federal court in Los Angeles, California, where Occidental used to be based, arguing Peruvian courts would shield Occidental.

Occidental lost its bid to have the lawsuit dismissed from U.S. courts in 2010.

The settlement agreement was reached in September of 2013 but the terms barred an announcement until now, Simons said.

Occidental operated Peru’s oil block 1-AB from 1971 to 2000 before selling its operations to Argentine firm Pluspetrol.

Pluspetrol’s contract is set to end in August of this year, and it has also been struggling to end several disputes with indigenous communities over pollution.

Indigenous communities are considering taking Pluspetrol to court if they cannot reach an agreement on environmental problems, said Achuar leader Arly Sandi from the town of Sauki.

(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Diane Craft)