The American oil giant Occidental Petroleum Corp. has agreed to an undisclosed out-of-court settlement with members of a tribe of Peruvian natives in the Amazon basin, ending an 8-year-old legal battle in a US federal court.
The suit began in 2007 in the US District Court in Los Angeles when five Achuar tribes, along with the environmental group Amazon Watch, accused Occidental of knowingly causing pollution that killed some of their people, caused birth defects and poisoned their territory.
It was the first time a US company had been sued in the United States for pollution caused in another country. In fact, the court in Los Angeles dismissed the suit in 2008, agreeing with Occidental that the case should be tried in Peru. Lawyers for the plaintiffs persuaded a federal appeals court to overturn the decision, and in 2013 the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Occidental.
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Marco Simons, the legal director of EarthRights International, which represented the plaintiffs, said in Lima that keeping the case in the Los Angeles court set a legal precedent that will be “significant for future cases and has already been cited by other courts in the United States.”
Occidental will finance a trust to set up projects promoting health, education and nutrition. The trust will be operated by the Achuar plaintiffs in Peru’s northern Amazon region that filed the lawsuit.
Under a confidentiality clause, neither side is permitted to disclose the amount of the settlement, but both Occidental and EarthRights International said they were pleased at the amount. The settlement was reached in September 2013, but the confidentiality clause also forbade any announcement until March 5, Simons said.
Despite agreeing to the settlement, the oil company denies any responsibility for polluting the region. It was accused of spilling oil and dumping toxic waste during work at Peru’s biggest oil field, known as oil block 1-AB.
One resident, Adolfina Sandi, said she welcomed the settlement even though two of her children, an 8-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, died from water they had drunk from the local river. “We didn’t know the impact of the pollution and the company never told us,” she told The Guardian.
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The Achuar people traditionally are hunter-gatherers, and protein for their diet is made up mostly of fish from local rivers. Simons said poisons in the river caused “death, generalized contamination and destruction of the Achuar way of life.” Amazon Watch said it reported in 2007 that it found elevated levels of lead and cadmium in the blood of Achuar children.
The Peruvian oil field, known as oil block 1-AB, was operated by Occidental from 1971 until 2000. Occidental then sold its contract to operate the block to the Argentine energy company Pluspetrol. Pluspetrol, whose contract expires in August, is also embroiled with local native communities in several disputes about suspected pollution.
Arly Sandi, an Achuar leader in the town of Sauki, told Reuters that his people may take Pluspetrol to court if they can’t reach a settlement similar to the one they achieved with Occidental.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com