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Technology and Environment

Today, Ecuador has become the site of a landmark court case that aims to prove that big oil companies can be held accountable for their past transgressions. In October of 2003, a billion-dollar lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians sought to extract damages from Texaco (now ChevronTexaco) for environmental damage done from 1972-1992 when the company conducted oil operations in Lago Agrio. The suit accuses Texaco of dumping 18 billion gallons of crude oil and toxic waste into over 600 unlined pits, causing widespread environment damage and increasing cancer rates in local populations. For its part, Texaco has said that the $40 million cleanup effort it conducted after ceasing its operations was adequate and holds that poor living conditions are likely behind any adverse health conditions found in the area.

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A Quichua Indian reveals environmental damage in her town.
But even as the high-profile Texaco case was beginning to wend its way through an Ecuadorian court in Lago Agrio, another controversial project located in the courthouse's backyard was clearing the way for fresh crude oil to flow through the jungle. In February of 2001, the Ecuadorian government signed an agreement with an international consortium of oil companies headed by Canada's Encana to build a pipeline from Lago Agrio across the Andes to a marine terminal at Balao. The $1.4 billion OCP, or "heavy crude," pipeline was designed to nearly double Ecuador's production capacity to 850,000 barrels of oil per day primarily to feed markets on the U.S.'s Pacific Coast.

The new pipeline sparked renewed protests from Ecuador's native peoples, and in February of 2002 thousands of protestors took to the streets and virtually crippled the nation's oil production before being contained by government forces. Environmentalists objected to the pipeline's path across seven national parks and protected areas including the Mindo Nambillo Cloudforest Reserve, home to exotic orchids and hundreds of different bird species, including some that are endangered. But the drive for oil eventually trumped the groups opposing the pipeline's construction, and the first tanker filled with OCP oil left Balao in September 2004.

Ironically, the new pipeline may have been responsible for an oil spill before it even went into operation. In April 2003 it was reported that Petroecuador, Ecuador's state-run oil company, had faulted heavy machinery used to construct the new pipeline as the cause of a rupture in its existing SOTE pipeline. The resulting spill dumped up to 10,000 barrels of crude oil into the Sucus-San Juan River, which later flows into a lagoon that is a water source for Quito, Ecuador's capital.

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