My knowledge of oil drilling, I have to admit, is mostly nonexistent, based on old Three Stooges shorts and the occasional drama where burly guys with hardhats muscle horizontal wheels while being soaked with the black stuff. Also, the Beverly Hillbillies.
But I learned fast during a screening of Crude, a 2009 documentary by Joe Berlinger. Turns out there’s a lot of waste in oil well drilling, when some of what comes up is oily sand, oily dirt, and/or oily water. As the best of the crude is sent down the pipeline to waiting ships, the waste stays behind in pits. In the case of the Ecuadorian Amazon, many of those pits were never cleaned or merely covered with dirt, allowing the oily debris to enter streams and wetlands.
The results are breathtaking. 30,000 citizens of the region have claimed that 18 billion gallons of oil waste has poisoned them and made them sick.
Texaco is the alleged culprit, the oil giant entering an “uninhabited wilderness” in 1964 and leaving in 1993. After turning over their operations to the Ecuador’s state-controlled oil company, Texaco took their helicopters, big rigs and drills home to the US. The mess they left behind is now Chevron’s mess, who took over Texaco in 2001 and is the defendant of an ongoing lawsuit.
It’s a tale of two countries and several lawyers. The Ecuadorian lawyer is Pablo Fajardo, who has been working the case for more than a decade, assisted by a Philadelphia law firm. An American named Steven Donziger is there to help, eventually recruiting the wife of Sting, Trudie Styler, to the fight (She succeeds in bringing some fresh water to the polluted regions).
Now and then we hear from Chevron representatives, who simply deny everything. Pollution? It’s caused by the lack of sanitation. Cancer? The rates are no higher there than anywhere else. These segments are hard to sit through, interspersed with scenes of victims enduring long bus rides to receive cancer treatments, and ducks slowly dying in oily puddles.
The case drags on still, and you can see why in Crude: a fascinating study of oil, the law, culture, greed, neglect, and the sad remains of what was a thriving part of our world.