Spills, gas leaks, contamination and fires are repeated in Neuquén. The last event was carried out by YPF on September 14 and they still could not control the fire. The national government ordered the Gendarmerie to "guard" the area.
"Zero ecological impact," promised in 2013 the then head of YPF, Miguel Galuccio, assuring that there would be no contamination in Vaca Muerta. The same did the international oil companies, officials, journalists and the powerful IAPG (Argentine Institute of Oil and Gas). Socio-environmental organizations and Mapuche communities warned otherwise: oil exploitation and environmental disaster would go hand in hand. Since Sunday a YPF oil well has burned, in the territory of the Mapuche Wirkaleu community. The latest in a string of pollution events. Criticism of fracking and rejection of the arrival of the Gendarmerie to "guard" the area.
Vaca Muerta is the main unconventional hydrocarbon formation in Argentina. It is located in the Neuquén basin (which includes the provinces of Neuquén, Mendoza, Río Negro and La Pampa) with an area of 30,000 square kilometers. Its exploitation requires the implementation of the questioned technique of "hydraulic fracturing" ("fracking"). It consists of a vertical drilling in the land, then horizontal drilling in depth, with injection of water, sand and chemicals under pressure, to break the rock containing the hydrocarbon. By back pumping, gas and oil are obtained. It is highly questioned for its environmental and health effects.
In Argentina, it began in 2013 in Neuquén, by YPF in partnership with the American Chevron. Also present are the companies Shell, Wintershall, ExxonMobil, Total, PAEG (Bulgheroni, Cnnoc, BP), Equinor, Schlumberger, Pluspetrol, Pampa Energía, Mercuria and Vista Oil (Miguel Galuccio's company).
In its short life in Argentina, fracking accumulates spills, well explosions and “losses” of radioactive pellets (they are used for “logging”, in-depth radiographs). The Mapuche communities, the first to be affected but not the only ones, showed in these years dozens of contamination events through photos and videos.
On October 19, 2018, there was a large oil spill that affected at least 47 hectares in Bandurria Sur (eleven kilometers from Añelo). It was a YPF and Schlumberger (US multinational) well. It was 36 hours out of control. The fact was known because it was disseminated by the workers themselves. The Neuquén Undersecretary of the Environment, Juan de Dios Lucchelli, pointed out that it was only "a few hectares." YPF acknowledged, ten days after the disaster, that it was 47 hectares. The organizations Greenpeace and FARN (Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) warned through satellite images that it was at least 80 hectares.
According to data from the Neuquén Environment Secretariat, in the Neuquén basin (where Vaca Muerta is located) there is an average of two spills per day. Between 2015 and 2018, the oil companies admitted 3,368 “environmental incidents”, a euphemism to avoid mentioning the word pollution. In 2018 there were 934 events (those of 2019 have not yet been released).
On Saturday, September 14, in the Loma La Lata field (also Vaca Muerta) a gas leak began that turned into a mega fire in a YPF fracking well. Neither the company nor the provincial government recognizes it, but the Mapuche Confederation recalled that it is the territory of the Wirkaleu indigenous community, which never gave its consent (as established by law) for the entry of oil companies.
In Argentina, workers have not been trained to deal with fires like the one in Loma La Lata. Two days after the fire started, specialists arrived from the United States to try to control it. The regional manager of YPF, Carlos Grassia, acknowledged that they still do not know what happened in the well. And he warned that it may take up to three weeks to turn it off.
The fire occurs in the area of the Mari Menuco and Los Barreales lakes, from where water is obtained for the cities of Neuquén, Plottier and Centenario. As the Mapuche warned in 2013, at the beginning of Vaca Muerta, the contamination will not only be for indigenous peoples or rural populations. “The latest fire is the result of an industry denounced in the world for not providing guarantees or security to the population. It is urgent to declare a ban on fracking due to the imminent danger it poses to the population. This ‘accident’ proves it once again, ”said Jorge Nahuel, from the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén.
The indigenous organization filed a complaint with the Environmental Crimes Unit, led by Maximiliano Breid Obeid. They propose the "urgent intervention" of the Public Prosecutor's Office due to the lack of information (by YPF and the provincial government) and in view of "the latent risk for the population and the environment" that the activity of the oil companies in Vaca Muerta implies. The complaint affirms that there is an “objective and real contamination” of the air, land and water. And it is based on National Law 24,051 (on hazardous waste). It requires the urgent implementation of a mitigation plan for the community.
“The accident rate in Vaca Muerta is alarming and increasing in the last two years. There are no ‘random accidents’, rather it is negligent business conduct and an omission in the State's oversight responsibility. Public health and the environment are endangered ”, denounced the Mapuche Confederation.
A survey by the Link for Energy and Socio-environmental Justice (made up of the NGO Taller Ecologista and Observatorio Petrolero Sur) specified the serious events of oil companies in the Rio Negro town of Allen (where the advanced oil industry harms the traditional fruit producers of the region) . Between March 2014 and January 2018, there were at least fourteen events that deny “safe fracking”: exploding wells, fires with flames up to 15 meters high, spills in pear production areas, irrigation canals ruptured and 240 thousand liters of toxic water spilled on farms, among others.
Very little of the socio-environmental aspect is published in the media. "The power of subordination that YPF applies to the press and workers to minimize the impact of accidents is enormous," said Jorge Nahuel, from the Mapuche Confederation. He highlighted the generous advertising pattern that the oil companies distribute. As an example, he specified that the newspaper La Nación inaugurated a specific and permanent section on the benefits of Vaca Muerta. The same medium that usually questions the Mapuche struggle for their territories.
On September 14 there was an attack on oil installations in Saudi Arabia. With that excuse, the Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich, ordered the National Gendarmerie to guard the oil operation in Vaca Muerta. Far from having real evidence of possible attacks, it aims to intimidate social-environmental organizations and Mapuche communities, which have already carried out mobilizations in oil exploitation areas. Gendarmerie, which has already repressed communities in Vaca Muerta, was responsible for the illegal operation in Chubut that ended with the death of Santiago Maldonado.
“We repudiate the militarization of our territory. It is a clear threat to the communities that demand their rights and it is a threatening call to the broad sector of society that rejects an undertaking that only generates looting, environmental destruction and cultural aggression, ”denounced the Mapuche Confederation.
In September 2017, the Federal Court of Appeals of General Roca allowed a habeas corpus filed by the Campo Maripe Mapuche community (from Loma Campana, Vaca Muerta) and ordered the National Gendarmerie to refrain from intervening without a court order within of its territory. Bullrich's resolution contradicts the ruling is current.
- By Darío Aranda. Extended version of the Article published on September 27, 2019 in the newspaper Página12.