Ecuadorean judge changed on Chevron pollution case

QUITO Mon Feb 22, 2010 5:24pm GMT

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QUITO (Reuters) - The provincial court in Ecuador's Amazon region that is hearing a $27 billion environmental damages case against Chevron Corp has changed the judge in charge of the case, court officials said on Monday.

The change was described as an administrative matter not expected to impact the outcome of the case.

Leonardo Ordonez, the newly named president of Sucumbios provincial court, was named to replace outgoing court president Nicolas Zambrano. Local law says the court's chief judge must hear environmental damages cases in the northern province.

"I see no problem with Ordonez continuing the process," plaintiffs' lawyer Pablo Fajardo told Reuters.

"It is an administrative matter, a routine rotation of the presidency of the Sucumbios provincial court," said Chevron spokesman James Craig. "On the face of it, it should not have any impact on Chevron's case."

Zambrano took over the case last year when the previous judge, Juan Nunez, stepped down after he was secretly taped discussing the suit with two mysterious men who recorded the conversation with secret cameras stuck inside a wristwatch and a pen.

Plaintiffs accuse Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001, of polluting the Amazon with faulting drilling practices in the 1970s and 1980s. Chevron denies the accusations.

Ecuador's leftist leader Rafael Correa has said publicly that he sides with the plaintiffs, sparking charges by Chevron of government interference in the case. The initial ruling is expected by both sides to go against Chevron.

But the company vows to appeal any decision for the plaintiffs, ensuring the case will probably stretch for years more.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)

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