60 Minutes’s Chevron pollution story springs a leak

An on-camera expert recants in a court statement

Three years ago, we weighed in on a bitter media dispute pitting Chevron against 60 Minutes over a piece outlining accusations against the oil giant of environmental predations in Ecuador. We mostly sided with Chevron.

The 60 Minutes piece took a blow on Friday when one of the main on-camera scientific experts filed court papers disavowing earlier statements made both in court and on camera to the news magazine.

The original piece, “Amazon Crude,” which aired in May 2009, was based on a high-profile lawsuit brought by plaintiffs’ lawyer Stephen Donziger, who for 20 years has pursued claims on behalf of local residents against Chevron as successor to Texaco, which operated in Ecuador for decades before quitting the country in 1992.

Chevron claims it cleaned up sites it was responsible for and that its successor in the fields there, state-owned Petroecuador, is responsible for any pollution that remains. The oil giant has waged a scorched-earth legal and PR campaign against Donziger, accusing him of extortion and fraud—a campaign that only picked up steam after Donziger won an $18-billion verdict in Ecuador in February 2011. For background, see this piece by Paul Barrett published not long after the verdict.

Chevron’s beef against 60 Minutes is that the news magazine unfairly implied that Chevron was responsible for sites that actually were Petroecuador’s problem. And our Martha Hamilton found the oil giant had a point. Among other things, she found, the segment began by showing a polluted well owned by a local resident, Manuel Salinas, near a drilling site that wasn’t Chevron’s responsibility to clean in the first place.

On the show, one of the main on-camera experts, Douglas Beltman of Stratus Consulting of Boulder, Colo., was shown denouncing the behavior of Chevron’s predecessor, Texaco, saying, among other things, “It’s a disgrace. They treated Ecuador like a trash heap.”

In the statement filed on Friday, Beltman says he was “pressured” by Donziger to make statements based on “insufficient data and unsupported assumptions” provided by Donziger and others on the plaintiffs’ side. Also:

Video and still imagery shown during this 60 Minutes segment reflected Petrecuador rather than TexPet (Texaco) operations. Accordingly, these images and my statements were misleading in the context in which they were presented. I understand Petroecuador has publicly confirmed they are responsible for remediating the pits at the sites visited by 60 Minutes… During the segment, 60 Minutes visits the home of Manuel Salinas. The water in Mr. Salinas’s well met USEPA drinking water standards.

And so on.

Beltman adds: “I am a scientist. I have learned from this experience that I should stick to science and leave public relations to others.”

The disavowal comes as part of a settlement between Stratus and Chevron, which had sued the consulting firm as part of the wider litigation. Links to PDFs of the statements recanting earlier testimony can be found in Chevron’s press release trumpeting the Stratus settlement.

I have a note into a 60 Minutes spokesman and will update when and if I hear back

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.