September 16, 1997
A neighborhood in Houston is suing the oil giant Chevron for $500 million. According to the community's lawyer, the company used the land that was later developed into their neighborhood as a dumping ground. Betty Anne Bowser reports on their legal fight.
JOHN O’QUINN, Attorney: Now we are reaping a bitter harvest. We have men and we have women who’ve come down with cancer.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Houston Attorney John O’Quinn--known for taking on controversial causes against big corporations--has been rehearsing for yet another battle--this one against Chevron.
JOHN O’QUINN: The only just verdict will be yes, yes, Judge, we do find that Chevron was negligent, reckless.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: There’s not a dry eye in the jury box, and no wonder. This is not a real jury, but they are plaintiffs, people who convinced O’Quinn to bring their lawsuit. They got emotional in this prep session when they heard their lawyer argue that a big oil company poisoned their land and their water and made them sick.
JOHN O’QUINN: We have to send a message to Chevron, don’t you ever, ever, every do that again.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The case he’s rehearing pits residents of this quiet South Houston neighborhood called Kennedy Heights against the nation’s third largest oil company--Chevron--which adamantly and publicly denies any pollution exists. Peter Robertson is president of Chevron USA.
PETER ROBERTSON, President, Chevron USA: The rate of illness amongst these people is not out of the norms around the country. So there is nothing there that is making them sick.
Getting to the root of the problems.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The roots of this case go back 75 years to a time when Kennedy Heights was just an empty prairie. The Gulf Oil Company, which owned the land then, used it to store vast quantities of crude oil in unlined pits that were the size of football fields. In 1927, when Gulf no longer needed to store petroleum here, the pits were drained, but crude oil residue remained in the ground. In the 1960's, Gulf sold the land to a developer who built Kennedy Heights. Meanwhile, the Gulf Oil Company, its assets, and most importantly its liabilities, were purchased by Chevron. The Gillis family bought their house in Kennedy Heights 26 years ago because it was close to Emanuel’s job and near Bobbie’s church.
BOBBIE GILLIS: This was my dream, and I said, I’ve always wanted a brick home and I want a large home, whereas that if anybody in my family would not be able to make it or something would happen to them my doors would always be open.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the dream began to sour in the 1980's when Mrs. Gillis was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that damages the immune system. At about the same time other people in the neighborhood also started getting sick. Civic leader John Simmons, whose former wife died from cancer, said residents nicknamed this street "Death Row."
JOHN SIMMONS: Right here, my best friend died with lupus no more than six months ago--the house right here--well, let’s take the blue house right there--this lady’s husband died with cancer. We had cancer deaths in this house here. We have had two deaths in that house: lupus and cancer.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It wasn’t until 1991 that residents learned their subdivision had been built over the old pits. Today most of them firmly believe something from those pits made them ill. Bob Chambers is typical of the people in this room.
BOB CHAMBERS: I’ve had two heart attacks. I’m diagnosed right now with congestive heart failure, hypertension, and reactive airway disorder.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thirteen-year-old Steven Johnson had a malignant tumor removed from his throat.
STEVEN JOHNSON: They cut my throat and took out some tissue out right there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What have the doctors said to you about Steven’s long-term prognosis?
GRANDMOTHER: Well, they say they’ll just have to watch him and see where it goes, if it reoccurs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bobby Meadows is Chevron’s lead lawyer.
BOBBY MEADOWS, Attorney, Chevron: I know there are people in Kennedy Heights who believe that they are sick and they’re dying because of Gulf’s prior use of this property. And I’m sorry about that, but it’s just not true. And there’s no evidence to support it.
JOHN O’QUINN: How do you feel about what was done to you all?
RESIDENT: It was unjust.
A case of environmental racism?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The core of O’Quinn’s case is based on an emerging field of law called environmental racism. O’Quinn contends Gulf intentionally sold the property to a developer who intended to build houses for African-Americans without cleaning the land up first. He says these letters written in the 1960's show a pattern of racism. In one a Gulf real estate consultant says the land could be filled in and sold for development of "white housing". Then a few years later, when there were no takers, Gulf’s consultants recommended the land be sold to a developer who wanted to build houses for "Negro residential development". And this time there’s no mention of filling in the land.
JOHN O’QUINN: It’s deliberate because it targeted this land for Negroes. This was dirty land, had cancerous-causing chemicals on it, and Gulf knew it.
BOBBY MEADOWS: Mr. O’Quinn’s use of those letters is really unfortunate because, in the first place, the 1964 document is an appraisal. It states very clearly on its face that what Gulf is interested in is learning the fair market value of the land. Gulf was interested in one thing and one thing only. What is the value of this land? We have someone who wants to buy it, how much should we ask, what should we sell it for?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: University of Texas Law School Professor Lynn Blaise says few environmental racism cases have been successful because they are hard to prove.
PROFESSOR LYNN BLAISE, University of Texas Law School: We have very few cases where the decision-making process is either clear enough or documented enough to have evidence of racial animus--that is a racially motivated decision. You may, in fact, have a letter or, you know, a memorandum. But if you’re talking about what people consider the situation in the United States of environmental racism, you’re talking about a systematic process that occurred over a period of decades.
JOHN O’QUINN: Gulf did not clean this land up.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But O’Quinn has a stunning string of legal victories in controversial cases, including a recent multi-million dollar win on behalf of breast implant victims. Now he wants $500 million from Chevron. Like O’Quinn, Chevron attorneys have rows and rows of boxes full of complex technical evidence and each side can produce experts to back up their arguments. O’Quinn has studies and charts that claim to show a high level of illness he says he has also tested water and found dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
JOHN O’QUINN: Now, you had cancer, did you not?
JOHN O’QUINN: All right. These red stick figures are cancer.
BOBBY MEADOWS: It’s very easy to put stick figures on a map and put it in front of a jury. It’s quite another to say that these figures represent people who have been harmed by chemicals in their drinking water that is the responsibility of Gulf. And that’s what they need to show and that’s what they cannot show, except by demonstrative exhibits like this and very emotional stories and very emotional explanations of their disease by the plaintiffs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chevron says it has spent $4 million conducting water tests like these, which have turned up no evidence of water contamination. The city of Houston also conducted two rounds of tests and found nothing, but O’Quinn doesn’t believe any of those tests and is especially critical of Chevron’s.
JOHN O’QUINN: They rigged their test.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do you do that? How do you rig a test?
JOHN O’QUINN: Well, the way you rig the test is you know where not to test; if somebody says, okay, this type of pipe break is going to cause the poison water to go to the East, and you send all your test crews to the West, they’re not going to find any poison water.
BOBBY MEADOW: That’s nonsense. We went into the neighborhood to find out whether or not there is a contamination problem and we tested the water, and we didn’t find any contamination. And there’s nothing rigged about.
A legal and publicity campaign.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The case isn’t just being fought in the courtroom. It’s also being waged in public. Both O’Quinn and the residents have public relations firms to help them get press attention. They recently brought the Rev. Jesse Jackson to town to call for a boycott of Chevron products.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: We’re going to fight in the courts, we’re going to fight in the streets, and we’re going to fight until justice is done.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chevron President Robertson is disturbed about what all this is doing to the company’s reputation. Chevron constantly tracks its image with consumers and is proud that this graph shows favorable ratings with the public. The company also spends millions of dollars in communities where it does business. It recently announced it would turn over this gas station in Oakland, California to an African American non-profit organization for training inner city workers. And Robertson says Chevron has always lived up to its responsibilities.
PETER ROBERTSON: There’s nothing here, there’s nothing to pay for. If anybody can come up with a shred of evidence that there’s something to fix, we’ll fix it. We don’t need a courtroom to do that, we do it all around the world. When we clean up a site--we clean up sites--we do that eery day. That’s our business.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This fight is a long way from being over. The first federal judge assigned to the case, Kenneth Hoyt, recently stepped down, seven weeks into trial. A mistrial was declared to the delight of Chevron’s lawyers who had been trying to have the judge removed, claiming he had a bias against the company. Now, a new federal judge has been appointed, and the new trial is expected to begin soon.