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Texaco actions challenged again

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Texaco's legal problems just won't go away. Late last year, the giant oil company was forced to settle a multimillion dollar lawsuit for its discriminatory promotion practices. This came after the disclosure of tapes on which company executives referred to African American employees as "black jelly beans," though they denied using the famous "n" word, insisting they were saying "St. Nicholas." Now, the multinational corporation is facing a class-action suit brought by Ecuadoran native people and environmentalists charging that oil-drilling operations in the Amazon region caused massive ecological destruction and human rights violations. The South American country intervened in the $1.5 billion suit on behalf of 30,000 plaintiffs following its dismissal by a U.S. judge who cited lack of Ecuadoran government participation. Ecuador's attorney general, Dr. Leonidas Plaza, gave official sanction to the legal action, which could be the first to hold a multinational corporation accountable for violations outside of its home country. Henry Dahl, a Texas lawyer representing the South American attorney general before a New York court, feels a victory for his clients would be a wake-up call to other multinationals. "If companies understand they can be held liable in the U.S. for their actions abroad, we might live in a better world." U.S. District Judge Jed Kakoff, a former corporate lawyer, ruled against the plaintiffs, claiming the court system "does not include a general writ to right the world's wrongs." An appeal is pending. The suit charges that between 1976-92, Texaco's Ecuadoran operations led to the displacement and extinction of several native communities, the spilling of 17 million gallons of crude oil into the Amazon (one and a half times the amount of the Exxon Valdez accident), the dumping of 20 billion gallons of toxic waste and creation of 600 open toxic-waste pits. Joe Kane, author of the best-selling books "Savages" and "Running the Amazon," said his year-long experience living with the Huaorani people confirmed these charges. The Huaorani are a fierce, Stone Age people who are one of eight indigenous peoples inhabiting the region. "They have successfully defended their territory against the Incas, the conquistadors, and the posing of a threat to them by what they call 'The Company,' by which they mean all petroleum interests." Kane calls Ecuador a colony of the oil companies and is pleased the country is finally taking a stand. "Ecuador is the only country other than Nigeria where you can dump oil and other toxic byproducts of the extraction process directly into open pits," he says. According to government figures, the Olympic pool-sized pits are breaking down and leaking into the rain forest at the rate of 4-5 million gallons a day. Petroleum companies like Texaco, Arco and Exxon, holding government leases on 85 percent of the province, contend they are not breaking any laws. "They're right," says Kane. "There are no laws, and their only interest is in getting the oil out of the ground as quickly and cheaply as possible." Melina Salverston, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment, says, "This suit is the only hope for thousands of people whose lives were ruined by Texaco, and a small price for the company to pay."

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