Richmond’s Mayor Gayle McLaughlin departed Sunday for Ecuador to visit the Lago Agrio region in the northeast province of Sucumbios Province. Ecuadorian President Rafael Vicente Correa invited McLaughlin to tour the region in the Amazon Rainforest so she can see firsthand the environmental damage caused by years of negligent oil drilling practices by Texaco Petroleum Co, which is now owned by Chevron Corporation.
Richmond is home to a Chevron refinery that is the city’s largest employer and tax generator. The refinery is also the region’s largest polluter. McLaughlin has been at the center of several battles with the oil giant over the years.
Oil companies have drilled for oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest for decades. Texaco struck its first gusher in 1967 and over a period twenty years, the Lago Agrio oil fields produced 1.7 billion barrels and $25 billion in profits. But the boon came at a high price to local farmers and indigenous groups. Once the boon had run its course, the oil company had left behind an estimated 16 million gallons of spilled crude oil and another 18 billion gallons of a drilling byproduct called “produced water,” which contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at many times the levels that are allowed in the United States.
Environmentalists claim the cancer-causing pollutants are responsible for ruining the water supply and for cancer rates that have increased by 150 percent since the drilling began. During a 2004 interview in the region, Correa said, “Let’s not deceive ourselves, there was a crime against humanity here.”
An Ecuadorian court found Chevron culpable for the environmental damage and fined the multinational oil giant $18 billion. But Chevron continues to deny causing any damage and has spent millions to contest the ruling, according to a press release issued by McLaughlin.
Representatives from Lago Agrio have been visiting Richmond since 2004 and that a kinship has developed between the region and the city. In her press release, McLaughlin said Correa invited her at no expense to the City of Richmond because he would like the people of Richmond and the people of Ecuador to be united to better effect change in the way Chevron and other oil operate their business. “In everything we do, we become stronger when we connect with others struggling in similar causes,” McLaughlin said.
During her five-day visit, McLaughlin will meet with Correa and visit contaminated areas of the Amazon Rainforest. She will also speak with the Ecuadorian press and meet with the mayor of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city.