* Plaintiffs filed lawsuits in Canada and Brazil this year
* Chevron spokesman accuses plaintiffs’ lawyers of “fraud”
* Legal saga spans nearly two decades
By Eduardo Garcia and Guido Nejamkis
QUITO/BUENOS AIRES, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Ecuadorean plaintiffs plan to sue Chevron in Argentina and Colombia to collect a $19 billion award for pollution in the Amazon that has become one of the world’s most high-profile environmental cases against an oil company.
A 2011 decision by an Ecuadorean court ordered Chevron to pay the sum for contamination of watersheds and inappropriate disposing of oil industry waste during crude oil production i n a remote jungle region during nearly 30 years.
Because Chevron has few assets in Ecuador that can be taken as compensation, the plaintiffs are trying to get the ruling enforced in other countries. Chevron calls the ruling unenforceable and illegitimate.
“Last year Chevron made $26 billion, with these kinds of profits the sentence could be paid in a question of months,” Enrique Bruchou, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told reporters in Buenos Aires on Wednesday.
Chevron has valuable assets in both Argentina and Colombia.
Bruchou said Chevron’s assets in Argentina were valued at around $2 billion, and noted that the company is a key producer of natural gas in Colombia.
Chevron is the fourth-largest producer of oil in Argentina. In September, it signed an accord with state-controlled YPF , Argentina’s No. 1 energy company, to consider a joint exploration project in the South American country.
Bruchou said the plaintiffs plan to start legal proceedings against Chevron in Argentina this week and in Colombia at a later date.
The plaintiffs, which include Indians from the Amazon, filed similar lawsuits in May in Canada and in June in Brazil, where Chevron and Transocean Ltd, its drilling contractor, also face civil lawsuits seeking nearly $20 billion in damages over an oil spill.
Chevron said the efforts to find new jurisdictions to enforce the Ecuador ruling showed the weakness of the case, which it calls the product of “bribery and fraud.”
“If the plaintiffs’ lawyers believed they had a legitimate judgment they would seek to enforce it in the United States. It’s precisely because of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ fraud that they are now in Argentina instead of the United States,” Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson told Reuters.
The plaintiffs from villages in the oil-rich Amazon won an $18.2 billion case against the oil giant over claims that Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, contaminated the area from 1964 to 1992.
The ruling was issued by a court in the town of Lago Agrio, in the Ecuadorean Amazon, and ratified by an appeals court in January 2012. Damages were increased to $19 billion in July.
The plaintiffs accused Texaco of causing illnesses among the local population by dumping drilling waste in unlined pits.
Chevron denies the accusations and says Texaco properly cleaned up all the pits for which it was responsible.
Filled with intrigue, accusations of corruption, bribery and dirty tricks, the complicated case has been fought for nearly two decades, mainly in courts in Ecuador and the United States.
Anticipating such a global legal battle, Chevron filed for arbitration in September 2009.
The arbitration panel has to rule whether Ecuador violated a treaty with the United States requiring it to guarantee Chevron a fair trial.
The company has also accused the plaintiffs, their legal team and their advisers of fraud in a U.S. court and the trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 15, 2013.
The plaintiffs’ legal team argues that Texaco’s remediation efforts were insufficient. Their long-term legal adviser, Steven Donziger, has also filed counter claims in a U.S. court accusing Chevron of fraud.