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Dow Jones Newswires – Ecuador Court Biologist Finds Bacterial Contamination In Oil Areas

Date: Feb 10, 2010

QUITO (Dow Jones)–A court-appointed biologist said in a report that there’s no hydrocarbon contamination in Ecuadorean rivers near where Chevron Corp. (CVX) is being sued for alleged environmental damages.

But the expert said he found high levels of bacterial contamination from fecal matters that could be the source of the local population’s health problems. Heavy metals were also found in local fish – which could come from crude or other sources, court-appointed biologist Jorge Bermeo said.

The document, recently reviewed by Dow Jones Newswires, further muddles the already murky environmental lawsuit, in which plaintiffs from the region sued Texaco for environmental damages allegedly done decades ago that they claim resulted in health problems. Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, denies the allegations.

Both sides have criticized the report. Plaintiffs dispute the findings, accusing Bermeo of being manipulated by the company’s lawyers. Chevron said that it didn’t interfere with either the expert’s work or with the final report.

“What has been found in fish has direct relation to the oil activity, and yet, the expert is trying to provide a tool to Chevron’s defense,” said Pablo Fajardo, an attorney for the plaintiffs who asked the court to dismiss 50% of the report.

Bermeo said denied the allegation. “No representative of the company has ever pressured me or tried to influence my report,” he said in an interview.

Asked about the heavy metal in fish tissues, Chevron spokesman James Craig said the result is likely a “false positive” that stems from improper sample preparation and analytical methods.

Bermeo said that he used the best technology available.

The report was based on analyses done last September in five of 16 towns that plaintiffs claim were affected by Texaco’s oil operations. Judge Juan Nunez, who formerly oversaw the case, asked Bermeo to assess how much of the pollution in the region’s waterways was caused by the region’s fishing techniques. Around 60% of the population in the Sucumbios and Orellana provinces, where the study took place, are dedicated to agriculture and fishing activities.

“According to the laboratory results, there are not significant quantities of metals in the water to say that there are hydrocarbon contamination problems,” Bermeo said.

The report said that water and aquatic life have been impacted by direct discharge of untreated sewage and by destructive fishing practices that include the use of dynamite, chemicals and poison.

Laboratory analysis of fish tissue found a higher-than-allowed presence of hydrocarbons and heavy metals such as phosphorus, barium, potassium, and lead, among others, according to report.

The hydrocarbons and metals found are the result of being exposed to contaminants of organic and mineral origin, the report said. The metals could come from agriculture, oil and mining activities near the rivers, as well as natural causes, the report said.

It’s unclear whether the findings will weigh in the court’s decision, which is expected for the first half of 2010. In November 2008 the court-appointed geologist Richard Cabrera told the court that Chevron should pay more than $27 billion in compensation for alleged environmental damages. Chevron has repeatedly criticized the report.