Oxy lawsuit for toxic contamination in Peru’s Amazon to stay in U.S.


By Jorge Riveros Cayo

Oxy lawsuit for toxic contamination in Peru’s Amazon to stay in U.S.
A group of 25 Achuar Peruvians filed suit against Occidental in 2007, demanding clean-up and reparations for environmental damages allegedly caused over 30 years.  (Photo: Amazon Watch)

Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy) must defend a lawsuit in the United States for contaminating the Peruvian rainforest for nearly 30 years, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday, reported Reuters.

The proposed class action was filed on behalf of members of indigenous Achuar communities represented by Los Angeles-based Earth Rights International, Amazon Watch, and the law firm Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP.

They accuse Occidental, the fourth biggest oil company in the U.S., of discharging millions of gallons of toxic oil by-products into waterways in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon rainforest, according to the ruling from the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Occidental had convinced a lower court that the case should be litigated in Peru. The 9th Circuit disagreed, ruling that the case be heard in Los Angeles, Occidental’s headquarters.

"Oxy will now face justice in the U.S. federal courts, rather than in a Peruvian legal system that has never compensated indigenous groups for environmental contamination," said Marco Simons, legal director of Earth Rights International, in a press release.

Likewise, Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch, assured that "the Achuar people continue to suffer the devastating health impacts caused by Oxy’s damaging practices, which were illegal in the U.S. at the time."

"This ruling means that the Achuar will finally get their day in U.S. court and signals the end of the era when companies could destroy indigenous communities and their environment with impunity."

Occidental Petroleum Corporation’s headquarters in Los Angeles (Photo: Internet)

The oil corporation said it has "empathy" for the issues raised by the Achuar people, but that there are "no credible data" indicating negative health impacts resulting from Oxy’s operations.

"Occidental believes that the U.S. courts are not the appropriate forum to litigate these Peruvian claims, and will continue to advocate that position," the company said.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals expressed skepticism of the oil corporation’s motives for attempting to move the case to Peru under the doctrine of forum non conveniens (“inconvenient forum”), and asked numerous probing questions of Occidental’s counsel.  

“This is highly unusual, for a firm that’s headquartered here (in the U.S.), decision-makers here, lawyers here, documents and witnesses here, to make this kind of a forum non conveniens motion,” said Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw.

Additionally, Benjamin Schonbrun, attorney of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, said: “Occidental Petroleum is subject to U.S. laws, and had they complied with U.S. laws and industry practices in protecting the environment, we wouldn’t be here. But they decided to put profit in front of human suffering.”

In October 2007, a group of 25 Achuar Peruvians filed suit against Occidental, demanding clean-up and reparations for environmental damages allegedly caused by Occidental over 30 years.

That same year, Earth Right published jointly with Amazon Watch and the Peruvian organization Racimos de Ungurahui, A Legacy of Harm (see video below), which describes how Occidental’s operations discharged billions of barrels of untreated wastewater into local streams, caused numerous spills and resulted in many unremediated toxic waste sites in Achuar territory, with severe health and livelihood consequences for the Achuar.

The Achuar indigenous people have inhabited the northeastern Peruvian Amazon for thousands of years, living in a symbiotic relationship with their territory, dependent on the natural resource base for their survival and livelihood.