The segment continues after its footage of Salinas with a conversation with a scientific expert for the people who are suing Chevron, clearly identifying him as such. He and correspondent Pelley examine a pit that they describe as designed to overflow into streams. Since the pit has been there for twenty-five years, it clearly was operated at one point by Texaco, but 60 Minutes fails to identify the site or say whether Texaco or Petroecuador was responsible for cleaning it up. Chevron says 60 Minutes wouldn’t disclose where the pit was located. That doesn’t seem fair, either.
“If you smell the water you can clearly smell the oil pollution in it, says Pelley who notes that in Texas such pits are supposed to be temporary and isolated from fresh water, whereas this one runs down to a stream. “When we stirred the bottom of the nearby stream, oil floated to the top.”
Right, but was the site Texaco’s responsibility under the 1994 cleanup deal? Unknown.
Then, about three and a half minutes into the segment, 60 Minutes notes: “Texaco left Ecuador in 1992 and today, Texaco’s owner, Chevron says the pollution is now the responsibility of Petroecuador, Texaco’s former partner. That dispute is at the heart of the lawsuit.”
Admittedly, television journalism has different rhythms and requirements from print journalism, but as a former newspaper editor for The Washington Post’s Wall Street and corporate crime coverage, I would have put that dispute higher up in the story. 60 Minutes does elaborate on Chevron’s argument later in the segment, however.
60 Minutes notes that the people who live near the oil production facilities use the river for washing clothes, bathing, and drinking. “Texaco acknowledged that it dumped into the rain forest, billions of gallons of what is called production water. Production water is waste that comes up with the oil. In fact, it’s often salty and laced with chemicals.”
But Chevron’s manager of global issues and policy Silvia Garrigo told Pelley during a two-hour interview made available to me by Chevron was that production water was only released or discharged “when it is safe to do so.” That part was not aired on the 60 Minutes segment; whatever you think of the denial, she should have been allowed to express it.
60 Minutes travels down a river with colorfully painted indigenous people and meets in their community hut with plaintiffs lawyer Stephen Donziger, of whom 60 Minutes says, “Make no mistake—Donziger would be wealthy if he wins. But he says that most of the money would go to environmental clean up.” Fair enough. Plaintiffs attorneys do often get rich through their work, but, in doing so, they also often expose wrongdoing.
Following that, 60 Minutes gives Chevron’s Garrigo some time to make an argument that the judicial system is corrupt and politicized. “When she says ‘politicized,’ she points to the top—Ecuador’s president who visited the waste sites and called the people who brought the suit heroes. A message, Garrigo says, that can’t be lost on the judge.”
When 60 Minutes goes to see the Judge Juan Nunez, Pelley observes, “Nunez struck us as serious and thoughtful. He’s been on the case for a year and he’s been out to the waste pits.” For all I know, Nunez may be serious and thoughtful, but it seemed an oddly out-of-place subjective evaluation in a news program. A few months later, last October, the court was forced to accept Nunez’s recusal from the case last October after Chevron released videos that appear to show Nunez telling two contractors that he will rule against Chevron. Nunez has said that the videos were doctored. Still, this shows the disadvantages of subjective musings compared to fact-based reporting.
60 Minutes did include about fifty seconds of footage of a grassy green tropical area that Garrigo identified as a site cleaned up by Texaco. However, it was only included after heavy lobbying from Chevron, which complained that CBS had spent time with the plaintiffs in Ecuador and should spend time with its representatives there. Mihailovich’s first offer was to let Chevron shoot its own footage of its cleaned up sites. Chevron’s reaction was that company video would not be as credible as 60 Minutes video.
60 Minutes deserves credit for agreeing to shoot the footage, even if it wasn’t its first instinct.