Consultant’s flip-flop weakens pollution case against Chevron

Another player in the long-running, $19 billion pollution lawsuit against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador has switched sides — and accused former colleagues of hiding the truth.

Environmental consultants who used to work for the lawyers suing Chevron now say they ghost-wrote a key court report that estimated the costs of cleaning up a swath of Ecuador’s rain forest tainted by oil production.

The report — which pegged the clean-up cost at $27 billion — was supposed to be written by a neutral expert appointed by the court. Instead, the expert was working with the plaintiffs, the consultants say in court filings made public Friday by Chevron.

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The consultants, from Stratus Consulting in Colorado, also call into question whether the oil-producing area is truly contaminated.

“Stratus is not aware of any scientific evidence that people in the former concession area are drinking water contaminated with petroleum,” writes Douglas Beltman, Stratus’ executive vice president, in one of the filings. “To the contrary, none of the drinking water samples I have seen exceeded the drinking water guidelines or standards established by (the World Health Organization) and the U.S. EPA for any chemical compound related to oil operations.”

Chevron, based in San Ramon, claimed vindication Friday. The company has for years called the lawsuit a shakedown and has vowed not to pay the $19 billion judgment, issued by an Ecuadoran judge in 2011. The company has even sued the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the United States for extortion and racketeering. The filings released Friday are part of that case.

“We are pleased that Stratus came forward to reveal the truth,” said Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s general counsel. “We call on others with knowledge of the fraud tainting the trial in Ecuador to come forward and do the right thing.”

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The lawyers fighting Chevron said Stratus had been coerced. Chevron had included Stratus in the extortion lawsuit and had pressured Stratus clients to drop the firm. In return for testimony, Chevron has now dropped Stratus from the suit.

“Chevron gets testimony two ways: they pay for it or they intimidate people until they give in,” said lawyer Craig Smyser. “Here, we are sorry to say, Chevron bullied Stratus until Stratus had no choice but to succumb.”

In an e-mail, Smyser also quoted a court filing earlier this year in which Stratus testified that the area in eastern Ecuador, known as the Oriente, was indeed polluted.

“Stratus actually found that contamination was present at every single well site and station that was sampled,” the filing reads.

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The Ecuadoran lawsuit, first filed in 1993, seeks to hold Chevron responsible for contaminating the area’s soil and water and sickening its people. Texaco drilled for oil in the region from 1964 to 1992, and Chevron inherited the suit when it bought Texaco in 2001. State-run oil company Petroecuador still operates there.

The bitter, hard-fought suit has already seen its share of dramatic revelations and reversals. Last year, an oil-field engineer who briefly worked the plaintiffs’ legal team testified that the lawyers tried to dictate, in advance, the results of environmental contamination reports. His former colleagues accused him of lying in return for “money or some other benefit” from Chevron, a charge the company denied.

Steven Donziger, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer at the time, hired Stratus in August 2007, telling Beltman and others working on the project that they would prepare an environmental damage assessment for the court. Donziger ordered them to keep their involvement secret, hiding it even from other people working for the plaintiffs, according to Beltman.

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A court-appointed expert named Richard Cabrera was supposed to write the report. But Beltman saw no sign that Cabrera was actually doing any of the work. The report, most of it written by Stratus, was submitted to the court in April 2008 under Cabrera’s name.

“At no point during Stratus’ time working on the Ecuador Project … did I have an understanding that Cabrera was preparing his own report,” Beltman writes in one of the court filings.

Beltman says Donziger even told him to write the report in the first person, as if Cabrera had written it.

In the new filings, Beltman apologizes for his actions and comments, including some he made to 60 Minutes. The CBS news program reported on the lawsuit in 2009 and included Beltman saying, “It’s a disgrace. They treated Ecuador like a trash heap.” Any pollution shown on the program was the responsibility of Petroecuador and not Chevron, Beltman says.