LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador (CN) - While pressing ahead with her country's campaign, "The Dirty Hand of Chevron," Ecuador's environmental minister has been facing friendly fire from the same plaintiffs who took on the oil giant in the Amazon.
Environmental Minister Lorena Tapia has a long resume, mixing private sector and government. She earned a master's degree in business at the Universidad Católica de Chile and studied law at the Universidad Católica Santiago de Guayaquil.
With a political trajectory spanning 19 years, Tapia studied with a previous Ecuadorean environmental minister before taking her current position in 2012. Tapia's office space reflects these two worlds, a spacious, soft-tone and decidedly corporate environment with a green cotton rug made to look like grass.
She said her selection for the ministerial post reflects President Rafael Correa's commitment to appointing women to public office, illustrated by the fact that there is an "equilibrium" between genders in his support and executive teams. Official and private media statistics show that the Correa administration has more women in its ranks than local officials in Ecuador.
In a one-hour interview, Tapia defended the Ecuadorian judiciary's finding that Chevron should pay $9.5 billion to clean up oil pollution in the Amazon, an award that a New York federal judge recently ruled fraudulent. She also talked about Ecuador's decision to approve oil exploitation in the ecologically sensitive Yasuní region of the rainforest, and her own office's actions shutting down the environmentalist group, Pachamama.
By far the oldest of these controversies, Chevron's fight with Ecuador stems from its predecessor Texaco's drilling in the Oriente region between 1972 and 1992. A group of indigenous Ecuadoreans and farmers sued Texaco a year later in New York.
In 2001, Chevron acquired Texaco and asked for the case to be transferred to Lago Agrio, where the drilling occurred. The oil giant always has argued it remediated its share, and that Ecuador's state-run oil company, Petroecuador, is responsible for the rest.
Calling Petroecuador's record "alarming," Chevron claims that the state-run company had a record of more than 1,400 spills adding up to more than 4.4 million gallons of oil between 2000 and 2008, after Texaco's exit.
Tapia called Chevron's argument that Petroecuador bears the blame "una gran mentira" ("a big lie").
"First of all, if they had applied most of the reactions you need to apply to prevent environmental damage, you would not have had the need to repair the damage," she said, referring to technologies such as wastewater re-injection.
Chevron's critics have said that the company held the patents for this method of minimizing damage, involving pumps to put "produced water" into the ground.
The Lago Agrio plaintiffs alleged in their lawsuit that Chevron dumped 18 billion gallons of oil in the waters by neglecting to use this process.
Denying the harmful effects of "produced water," Chevron insists that reports of cancers in the Amazon have scant documentary support.
Tapia acknowledged that it is "clear and true that it's been hard to prove the direct causality of this source of contamination with the problems that people have now," but she blamed that on historically poor maintenance of medical records in the Ecuadorean Amazon.