By Michael Erman
NEW YORK (Reuters) - CHEVRON(CVX.NY)Corp on Monday criticized the award of a prestigious environmental prize to two leaders of a prolonged legal challenge that claims the oil company polluted the Amazon.
Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza will receive one of six Goldman Environmental Prizes, often characterized as the Nobel Prize for the environment, which will be handed out on Monday night in San Francisco.
Fajardo and Yanza led the charge against Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001. They sued the company in Ecuador on behalf of peasants and Indians there, claiming the company polluted the jungle and damaged the health of residents by dumping 18 billion gallons of contaminated water there between 1972 and 1992.
Earlier this month, an independent environmental expert told the court in a non-binding report that Chevron should pay between $7 billion and $16 billion for environmental damage.
Chevron argues it was released from any liability when it paid $40 million for an environmental cleanup in the 1990s and blames state oil company Petroecuador for much of the pollution. The company has characterized the lawsuit as being politically-motivated and called it extortion.
It said the organizers of the Goldman Prize have been misled about Fajardo's and Yanza's environmental credentials.
"They have given an award to two people who are far from deserving," said Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson. "These individuals have stood in the way of Petroecuador's long overdue remediation. The only thing green they are interested in is money."
But the prize's founder, Richard Goldman, said the awards are thoroughly researched and fact-checked and that the group was proud to add the activists to its list of recipients.
"Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza are two ordinary Ecuadorians addressing a problem that impacts 30,000 of their countrymen: petrochemical waste spoiling hundreds of square miles of Amazon rainforest," Goldman said in a statement.
"Their work is motivated by a single desire: to ensure that their corner of the Amazon -- one of the world's most contaminated industrial sites -- is cleaned up."
Steven Donziger, a U.S. lawyer who advises Fajardo and Yanza on the case, said that Chevron's reaction to the award is an attempt to obscure a possible judgment against the company.
"Chevron has launched a misinformation campaign to hide the seriousness of this potential liability from its shareholders," Donziger said. "Part of that campaign is to dishonor the leaders of the lawsuit who are being internationally recognized for their courageous struggle."
(Reporting by Michael Erman; editing by Carol Bishopric)