The elaborate press event was an amazing logistical feat considering it took place deep in the Amazon Rainforest. The arrival of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's helicopter was heralded by the theme from Star Wars, which blared from powerful speakers arranged around a giant white tent that billowed in a clearing near the tree line of dense forest. Correa then strode past the tent and into the forest wearing a white shirt, blue jeans, and bright yellow rubber boots. He walked along a narrow path and then onto a log that stretched precariously across a swampy pit that oil company workers had dug into the forest floor. He crouched down and plunged his gloved hand into the dirty water and grabbed a glob of black, oozing sludge. He held the muck over his head and the forest canopy exploded with flashes from the dozens of news photographers that lined the pit.
Correa then walked along the narrow path that edged the contaminated pool followed by television camera crews that awkwardly tried to keep up with him without falling into the polluted pit. In the press tent, Correa walked up to Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin who was giving media interviews. "Gayle, Gayle," Correa said in a thick accent and then held up his sludge-covered hand. "This is Chevron. For thirty years, this is Chevron."
The fifty-year-old Correa, a charismatic and popular progressive, timed the media event to precede the October 15 start of a federal trial in New York involving the East Bay oil giant. Chevron's lawyers are attempting to block indigenous groups and farmers of Ecuador who were harmed by the widespread contamination caused by the oil company from collecting a $19 billion court judgment lodged against Chevron two years ago. Lawyers for the San Ramon-based corporation, which also has long been criticized for pollution and human-health problems associated with its Richmond refinery, contend that the attorneys who defeated the oil company in court in Ecuador engaged in fraud and racketeering.
President Correa decided to invite McLaughlin to tour his country after she participated in a large protest in August at the Richmond Chevron Refinery. The Ecuadorian government then paid for McLaughlin to fly to the country in September and participate in a large-scale media campaign and to tour the Lago Agrio region where Texaco — an oil company that Chevron absorbed a dozen years ago — left a legacy of destruction, contamination, and, residents say, high rates of cancer and other illnesses. I accompanied the tour.
In the rainforest, McLaughlin stood at the edge of a ten-foot-deep pit filled with black sludge. She said it was a moving experience to see firsthand the damage that Chevron/Texaco left behind. She also said the people of Lago Agrio and the people of Richmond have a common bond. "This is a massive environmental disaster, and Chevron is turning its back on it. That's a crime. It is criminal that they would leave this here and say they are not responsible," McLaughlin said to a bank of television cameras that had followed her into the forest. "I said to the president that he exposed the truth here today about Chevron's practices, and we do the same in Richmond. I said you expose the truth, we expose the truth, and together we are stronger."
McLaughlin's trip to Ecuador was an unprecedented act. No Richmond mayor had ever taken a diplomatic trip to another country for the purpose of criticizing the city's largest revenue generator and employer.
For more than one hundred years, Chevron and its refinery had wielded a great deal of influence over city politics. But after city residents elected McLaughlin to be the East Bay's first-ever Green Party mayor in 2006, the Richmond City Council has held the oil company accountable in ways to which it had not been accustomed. The council sponsored ballot measures requiring the refinery to pay back utility taxes, filed lawsuits to ensure greater safety standards, and, in August, McLaughlin and other councilmembers joined 2,500 protesters at the refinery gates. "I suppose I am the first mayor to take such a trip," McLaughlin said. "But it was an important trip for me to make because it helped shed light on the fact that these corporations cause suffering all over the world."
During her six-day visit, McLaughlin met and exchanged gifts with Correa at the presidential palace in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital; gave dozens of television, radio, and print interviews; and toured an Amazonian nature sanctuary and several remote villages. She also met with some of the farmers and indigenous villagers who won the $19 billion lawsuit against Chevron for contaminating the Lago Agrio region with billions of gallons of spilled oil and billions of gallons of dumped toxic drilling byproducts.
At nearly all of the events, meetings, and interviews, McLaughlin compared the Ecuadorian struggle against Chevron to Richmond's struggle with the same company. In particular, she spoke about the explosion and fire at the Richmond Chevron Refinery on August 6, 2012 that sent a huge column of smoke across the sky and 1,500 Richmond residents to local hospitals. The fire was the third major accident at the refinery in fourteen years. The US Chemical Safety Board concluded that the explosion and fire could have been prevented had the company carried out regular maintenance and equipment upgrades. Chevron pled no contest in Contra Costa County Superior Court to six charges of willful criminal neglect and paid $2 million in fines.