RICHMOND -- After a nearly sleepless six-day excursion through Ecuador to tour sites of environmental devastation, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she has returned to Richmond with a broadened perspective and steeled resolve to continue her struggle against big oil, including her city's biggest taxpayer.
"What I saw brought home to me the importance of the solidarity," McLaughlin said. "We're all interconnected, and this is an international struggle against corporate domination."
McLaughlin, 61, the nation's only Green Party mayor of a city of more than 100,000 residents, on Wednesday described the whirlwind of events that in a matter of days swept her from Richmond to Quito, Ecuador's capital, and into the dense Amazon jungles.
During her time crisscrossing Ecuador by plane, bus and helicopter, McLaughlin gave dozens of media interviews, toured tiny jungle villages, met with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and dipped her hands in chemical pools, or "piscinas," holding byproducts of petrochemical processing. She said she slept no more than four hours per night and braved stifling jungle conditions but was boosted by adrenaline and a fast-paced schedule.
"It was moving to see massive, monumental damage in otherwise pristine rain forests," McLaughlin said. "To see and touch the sludge, the desecration, it was something I'll never forget."
The visit was hatched earlier this month, when McLaughlin received emails from a New York City-based public relations firm that works for the Ecuadoran government. McLaughlin had come to their attention, and that of officials in Ecuador, because of her outspoken criticism of Chevron, which operates a massive, century-old refinery in Richmond.
"I thought they were talking about an event months away, but it turned out to be a matter of days," McLaughlin said.
On Sept. 15, McLaughlin, along with urban farming activist Doria Robinson and East Bay Express writer John Geluardi, were bound for Ecuador via Oakland International Airport, touching down in the capital city in the middle of the night.
All expenses for the three -- including food, airfare and lodging -- were paid by the Ecuadoran government, McLaughlin said.
Like Richmond, many Ecuadoran communities have been locked in a bitter struggle with Chevron. The oil company Texaco moved its infrastructure out of Ecuador in 1992, and Chevron acquired Texaco, and its liabilities, in 2001.
The Amazon Defense Coalition, a coalition of indigenous tribes, sued, alleging that Texaco had fouled groundwater and increased cancer rates by cutting costs rather than properly storing toxins.
An Ecuadoran court awarded the group $18 billion in 2011. Chevron has appealed and countersued, and a new trial is set to begin in New York federal court on Oct. 15.
Chevron released a statement last week calling the event in Ecuador a "media show."
"President Correa ... offered a distorted and inaccurate account of the history of these sites and who is responsible for any environmental impact," the statement said.
McLaughlin said she has sent a letter to the plaintiffs' attorneys inviting them and some of their indigenous clients to Richmond on Oct. 13.
"We need to build our bonds as a union of affected peoples," McLaughlin said.
Correa became aware of McLaughlin this year when she made headlines in protests and lawsuits against Chevron over an Aug. 6, 2012, fire that sent 15,000 residents to hospitals. Investigators found Chevron failed to maintain aging pipes, triggering the fire.
The city is suing the oil giant for damages, an unprecedented step by the city against its largest taxpayer, and one led by McLaughlin and her progressive allies.
McLaughlin's visit came during Correa's media campaign, called "The Dirty Hand of Chevron," to spotlight the damages ahead of the coming trial.
Not everyone was pleased with the mayor's trip, which was followed on social media and in Robinson's blog postings.
"She should be in Richmond getting the roads fixed," Richmond resident Barry Nel commented on a Facebook posting reporting McLaughlin's activism in Ecuador. During a City Council meeting that week, several residents blasted McLaughlin for traveling to South America.
McLaughlin said the critics were few "in the face of enormous support."
"This is a united struggle for justice that we are embarked on," she said. "I am proud to have represented the people of Richmond on this trip."