Quito, Ecuador – Karen Hinton, the press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, is rejoining the campaign of indigenous and farmer communities in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest to force Chevron to pay up on a historic $11 billon environmental judgment imposed for the dumping of billions of gallons of toxic oil waste.
Hinton, a native of Mississippi, is leaving the de Blasio administration at the end of the week. She will resume her duties for the Ecuadorians next week along with other private clients as the president of her own public relations firm, Hinton Communications. Hinton previously worked for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo when he was a cabinet-level official in the Clinton Administration.
In a statement, Ecuadorian community leader Luis Yanza lauded Hinton for her efforts over seven years (2008 to 2015) to help the indigenous and farmer communities obtain a clean-up of Chevron’s oil contamination on their ancestral lands. In 2013, after 11 years of legal proceedings in Chevron’s chosen forum of Ecuador, the country’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the oil giant had deliberately dumped the waste into the rainforest, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer. Locals call the disaster the “Amazon Chernobyl” and thousands of people in the area have died of cancer and other oil-related diseases.
The court, in imposing a $9.5 billion judgment, also found that Chevron abandoned almost 1,000 toxic waste pits filled with oil sludge that continue to contaminate soils and groundwater. Because the oil company has refused to pay, the affected communities have filed legal actions to seize Chevron’s assets in Canada and Brazil – actions that Hinton plans to help publicize. Over the past three years, eighteen consecutive appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada have affirmed all or parts of the judgment against Chevron, which is now over $11 billion given interest payments.
“On behalf of the thousands of indigenous and farmer inhabitants of Ecuador’s rainforest, we are extremely pleased to have Karen Hinton return to our team for what we hope will be the final lap before we recover the judgment against Chevron in full,” said Yanza, a Goldman Prize winner and renowned advocate. Yanza works closely with the two main community organizations that have been fighting Chevron, the Amazon Defense Coalition (Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia) and UDAPT (Union of Persons Affected by Texaco).
“For years, Karen has effectively defended thousands of people who live in the deepest recesses of the Amazon jungle of Ecuador against the lies told by Chevron,” he added.
Steven Donziger, the longtime U.S. legal advisor to the Ecuadorian communities who has worked closely with Hinton, issued the following statement:
“Karen has been a vital member of the international team of advocates pursuing Chevron to hold it accountable for its human rights violations and environmental crimes in Ecuador. It will be great to have her on our side once again. Karen fights tenaciously for her beliefs and never backs down when it comes to defending the truth. Karen has been a leader in working with our team to successfully neutralize a constant wave of Chevron attacks from dozens of public relations firms and law firms.”
The environmental group Amazon Watch, which also worked closely with Hinton, said it is “grateful” for the return of a longtime ally of the communities affected by Chevron’s environmental destruction in Ecuador.
“I repeat what I said one year ago when Karen joined the New York City mayor: her dedication and support for this epic struggle for justice against one of the world’s most powerful corporations has helped to achieve one of the most important victories in the history of the environmental and corporate accountability movement,” said Paul Paz y Miño, the group’s Associate Director.
Since 2007, Hinton traveled on numerous occasions to the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador to assist the affected communities increase the visibility of the impact of Chevron’s toxic dumping on their ancestral lands. Among the major media outlets to expose Chevron’s wrongdoing in Ecuador during Hinton’s tenure are 60 Minutes, Rolling Stone, and Vice News.
Those she accompanied to the region included U.S. Representative James McGovern (D-MA), who in 2008 wrote a scathing critique of Chevron‘s toxic dumping for then President-elect Barack Obama; human rights activist Kerry Kennedy, who wrote an article accusing Chevron of committing cultural genocide in Ecuador; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who toured the devastated area in 2012; Ben Barnes, the former Lt. Governor of Texas and a major lobbyist; and Wayne Gibbens, a retired lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and a Board Member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Hinton for years worked closely with Barnes and former U.S. Representative Tom Downey to successfully block a major Chevron effort to pressure the Bush and Obama Administrations to cancel bilateral trade preferences for Ecuador as a form of revenge for allowing its citizens to sue the company. Chevron had tried to cancel the preferences even after insisting the trial be heard in the South American nation.
Hinton also published dozens of blogs exposing Chevron’s distortion of facts, manipulation of evidence, and attempts to bribe officials in Ecuador. These blogs appeared largely on The Huffington Post, the Chevron Pit, and other websites. Last year, Hinton worked with the environmental group Amazon Watch to disclose internal Chevron videos that show company field technicians secretly finding contamination at the company’s former well sites in Ecuador and plotting ways to hide it from the court.
Hinton played a major role in working with award-winning photojournalist Lou Dematteis to publish his photos of Chevron’s victims via social media. See here for one such article, called “Chevron Says These People Don’t Matter”.
Hinton also served as the personal spokesperson and advisor to Donziger, a New York-based human rights attorney who has represented the Ecuadorian communities since 1993. Chevron has used six public relations firms and at least 60 law firms to target Donziger and his colleagues in an avowed “demonization” campaign to distract attention from the company’s liability in Ecuador. Hinton helped Donziger place a lengthy article on a legal website explaining the case against Chevron and responding to some of the company’s allegations.
As a result of her efforts, Chevron targeted Hinton as an alleged “co-conspirator” in what it claimed was a “racketeering” conspiracy headed by Donziger in Ecuador. Hinton and Donziger repeatedly exposed the allegation as a smokescreen designed to distract attention from the company’s misconduct and courtroom setbacks. (For background on how Chevron’s defenses are crumbling in court, see here and here.)
Before joining the De Blasio administration, Hinton published a farewell column in The Huffington Post again outlining the legal findings against Chevron and thanking those on the team who have stood up to the company’s intimidation campaign.
“Seven years ago this month, I traveled to Ecuador’s rainforest to learn about one of the world’s largest environmental oil disasters,” Hinton wrote in the farewell column. “It was a life-changing trip.
“I wish I were a good enough writer to describe the experience and do it justice,” she added. “Words and pictures are all that I have ever had to fight Chevron’s efforts to deny justice to the 30,000 or so people forced to live with five decades of extremely toxic oil contamination left by Texaco’s exploration.”
In reference to Chevron CEO John Watson and General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate, Hinton offered a challenge: “Will they help? Or, will they become known as the two men who spent at least $1 billion in legal fees to block assistance to the poorest and most disenfranchised people in Ecuador?”