Allen is the national capital of the pear, in Vaca Muerta, where the fruit crops that are consumed in the rest of the country coexist with the fracking wells.
Leukemia, collapsed houses, unbearable sounds, toxic gas emissions, gastroenteritis, vomiting, spills. The story is repeated from neighbor to neighbor. Only the forms change, but the experiences and beliefs are similar. For the oil companies, on the other hand, it is an example of an industry that generates some 3,000 jobs throughout Río Negro and that last year left the province with 500 million pesos in royalties.
Allen is part of the Estación Fernández Oro deposit, in the Vaca Muerta sector of Rio Negro. The exploitation of hydrocarbons has been in the area for several decades, but with the emergence of the fracking technique, wells multiplied in the area, where tight gas is the star. Although the long-term health and environmental consequences of fracking are not even clear, there was no prior debate. Someone decided that it was going to be that way and life changed forever. Most of the neighbors don't want to talk, but the rule has several exceptions. Is it possible the coexistence of fracking with crops if gas and oil pay 10 times more per hectare? Does it affect the health of the neighbors? And the environment?
Well accidents in the area are far from being an exception. The succession is remarkable and contrasts with the statements of the government of the neighboring province of Neuquén, which after the oil spill that occurred on October 19 in Bandurria Sur, reported that since 2014 there had been no problems in the "area". That statement had one intention: to install the idea that there have been no accidents in all of Vaca Muerta in recent years, and this was reported by a good part of the local press. Naturally, it is a lie.
At the South Petroleum Observatory they put together a timeline of the accidents only in Allen. In 2014 two wells exploded and another caught fire causing flames up to 15 meters high. 2015 was the year of the spills. There were four. In one of them, in July, the fluids ended up in a lagoon that connects with others that, in turn, flow into the Negro River. The company Yacimiento del Sur (YSUR, a subsidiary of YPF) offered a score of residents of Calle Ciega 10 a compensation of 44 thousand pesos a year, but demanded in exchange a confidentiality clause, collaboration with the company in case of protests and the resignation of new claims.
That year there was also a succession of explosions in the EFO 280 well, but for the Rio Negro government it was a mere “whistle”. After the complaint from the neighbors, the Secretary of Energy, Marcelo Echegoyen, was forceful. "I'm looking at Google Earth and there are no neighborhoods here," he declared.
The following year there was the most important accident known in the area, when 240 thousand liters of so-called "formation water" leaked from wells 360 and 362. Animals and fruit trees died.
There were more incidents. Most of the time, according to the neighbors, they are told that they are drills, which contrasts - according to those testimonies - with the panicky face of the workers.
The controversy is redoubled when the one in charge of controlling is closely linked to the petrochemical industry. The Secretary of the Environment of Río Negro, Dina Migani, owned and worked until 2014 at Quinpe SRL, a company dedicated to the transport, storage and distribution of chemical products and waste related to the extraction of hydrocarbons; and among its clients it has YPF, Petrobras, Halliburton, TGS and Schlumberger, according to a complaint for contamination that the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN) presented this year, at the request of the president of the Deliberative Council of Fernández Oro Station, Claudio Belt.
Beyond accidents, contamination from oil and gas wells often cannot be seen. That is what the NGO Earthworks sought to demonstrate when it visited Fernández Oro Station with an infrared camera brought from the United States to record invisible gases that are highly toxic and potentially deadly, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), among which are benzene. , butane, ethylbenzene, methane, propane, octane, toluene and xylene.
"People exposed to the contamination of VOCs that we have detected in Argentina can suffer health consequences in the short and long term, including cancer," explained environmentalist Pete Dronkers, of the NGO.
The dialogue, simplified in this article, took place in a waiting room of a hospital in Neuquén in which several mothers realized that they had two denominators in common: they live with fracking and agrochemicals, and their children have leukemia. Then a suspicion arose that was later admitted by the provincial Health Minister, Fabián Zgaib, to a journalist from Roca, and by his secretary to the neighbors: that in Allen there are at least 7 cases of leukemia, that is, between three and four times more than is statistically expected.
Shortly after, a doctor who asked to keep her identity confidential added the figure and confessed to the neighbors that there were actually 12 cases, but that since most were being treated in Neuquén, the statistics from Río Negro did not reflect it. Officially, for the Province, there were four deaths and five hospitalizations for leukemia in Allen between 2013 and 2017.
Infobae requested the hard data from the health portfolio, but found very little collaboration. Of course: they did not want to say how many cases there are in total nor did they deny the seven reported by the neighbors. "I do not know," a spokesman just clarified. Apart from the fact that the information could not be verified, what remains uncovered is a constant in the areas where there are extractivist projects suspected of contamination: the secrecy of medical statistics.
In this regard, Allen has another paradigmatic case, that of Rubén Ibáñez, who lives with his wife and one of their children in the Costa Este neighborhood. He was the landlord of the El Alto Nursery, which is now abandoned. The owner, she says, accepted a “help” from YPF so that some pipes could pass under her land and left aside the productive path. Behind his house, about 10 meters away, there is a stream. On the other side there are oil installations whose existence the Ibáñez family learned from the noise when they raised the fracking tower. Nobody warned him.
The Ibáñez family is convinced that Rubén's health problems began at the hand of the AP.RN.EFE 141 well, which exploded at 9:00 p.m. on March 19, 2014. “The valves popped and a flare occurred. Everything around shook. They were many hours with the toxic gases coming out. No one came to help us. The doctor who arrived later did not even want to get out of the ambulance to see me, ”said Rubén. "I started with asthma and respiratory problems, and in the end they found a spot on my right lung, even though I never smoked," he said.
The word cancer is not part of his story. But his wife is more crude. "He has a tumor," Zulema Campos launched as she looked at her spent cell phone in her kitchen. “The water is not even good for watering the plants, because it comes out contaminated. Everything is a disaster here, ”he complained. Shortly before receiving Infobae they had suffered another accident of great magnitude.
They did not want to give Rubén the results of his studies at Allen's hospital and, according to the complaint, he had to initiate a legal action to access his records. Prosecutor Julieta Villa ordered a search in which she only found the cover of her medical record. There was nothing else. Someone wanted to hide the antecedent.
Determining the causes of health problems associated with the environment is always a challenge. And in Allen's case there are "at least three accumulation lines" of contamination, as the sociologist Maristella Svampa warned this medium, who has just publishedFarm 51(South American) on the transformations in Allen. “The first, which is linked to the use of agrochemicals in agriculture; the second is the first oil outpost of the seventies onwards; and the third is fracking, which is like the final shot, "he said.
Water, landslides and unbearable sounds
Although anti-fracking activists often highlight the dangers of climate change among their arguments, neighbors do not talk about it, but about concrete problems. His concern is another. Estela Sánchez lived in Guerrico, about 12 kilometers from Allen. He had to leave his house because the water was literally black. The analyzes requested by the Provincial Water Department to which Infobae accessed detected the presence of 0.10 milligrams per liter of hydrocarbons in the water that came out of their taps. There were also some chemicals that shouldn't have been in the water, like manganese, total iron, and carbonates. Other values were above what is advisable, such as total hardness, bicarbonates, sulfates and PH, among others.
Estela then changed the farm where she planted pears and apples for a house in the city of Allen. However, like many of his neighbors, he continues to buy bottled water.
Roxana Velarde came to Allen 20 years ago. But life, he says, is no longer the same. “The first thing we start to notice are health problems. Vomiting, stomach aches, headache, sulfur smell all the time; neighbors with pancreatitis, pain very often ”, he reviewed.
His case is among the most extreme: his house literally fell apart. She clarified that she is not the only one and recalled her disastrous experience. He commented that it all started when the traffic in the area by trucks became intense. The floor began to rise and the walls, to crack. Then fracking started and about six months ago his D-Day arrived. “We were all outside, drinking mate. Inside were my 3-year-old grandson and one of my sons watching television when the ceiling fell in one room and half of the living room. Luckily they were in the dining room part, otherwise I could have crushed them ”, he warned.
Despite the fact that all the testimonies have many common places, unlike other places where there are environmental conflicts, in Allen there is no organization that brings together the neighbors. One of the few who promotes some kind of collective struggle is Juan Carlos Ponce, a member of the Assembly for Water.
"I defend the land, because I grew up in the fields," said Ponce, a registered gas operator by profession. “Here in summer you can't breathe. But besides the pollution, the noise is unbearable. With an appeal, we obtained a fine of 2.5 million pesos to some towers for noise pollution, "he said.
Although for Juan Ponce “corporate social responsibility is a bribe”, at YPF they see it as a valid strategy to interact with the community in which they carry out their activities “aimed at generating shared value, strengthening social license and employee commitment of the company ”, as explained from the company to Infobae.
The YPF Foundation worked on the development of the Sustainable Allen Plan. In addition, since 2014 it has carried out 26 trainings in the area, of which 484 students participated, specializing in different areas such as construction, electricity and software.
For the next four years, in addition, the company agreed with the provincial government and the municipality a works plan for more than 50 million pesos for the construction of a new bus terminal, the delivery of asphalt for street paving and the improvement of green spaces.
Furthermore, the oil company has already connected 115 homes in the Costa Este neighborhood to the gas trunk network. It also delivered ovens, heaters and hot water tanks. The investment was 15 million pesos. And it plans to build a new 1,200-square-meter covered operating center to concentrate its entire operation in the province of Río Negro in Allen.
However, coexistence with neighbors and production has its limits. With the premise that fracking and the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and vegetables are not compatible, in August 2013, the Allen Deliberative Council approved an ordinance prohibiting fracking in the commune's ejido and asked the provincial government to push in court a measure not to innovate. But three months later, the Rio Negro Superior Court of Justice declared the rule unconstitutional, because it considered that the province has "exclusive jurisdiction" in hydrocarbon matters.
As they explained to Infobae after a request for access to information, the National Service for Agrifood Health and Quality (Senasa) does not measure the presence of substances related to the production of hydrocarbons in fruits and vegetables produced in Allen, since its controls are focus on agrochemical residues. The question is whether the hydrocarbons or chemical elements that participate in the extraction process can contaminate the production. And if anything, Senasa shouldn't control it.
The Concerned Health Professionals of New York for years has published a compendium of scientific findings on fracking, the authors of which were last year in Allen. An entire chapter of the text is devoted to threats to agriculture and soil quality based on what occurred in some areas of the United States.
Something that is very often found - and it is documented in California - is that several companies use the wells to eliminate fracking wastewater (flowback), which is connected to quality water sources, in which arsenic, thallium and nitrates. This technique, which is used in almost all the wells in Vaca Muerta, has generated cases of contamination, although companies assure that it is a safe method that is subject to internal and external controls.
“The percentage of water that returns after being injected into the well is between 25 and 50%. It is subjected to a physical-chemical treatment process so that it reaches the values of the discharge permit -injection into sinkholes- granted by the enforcement authority. This implies that the water that is injected remains with a quality of water like the one that exists in those depths, which is not drinkable in its natural condition ”, they explained from YPF.
“Today almost all of the unconventional flowback waters are discharged into very deep sinkholes that in the case of Vaca Muerta exceed 1,200 meters in depth. The drinking water courses are found in that area above 450 meters and the formation that is 1200 meters away is chosen for injection because there is a geological seal that separates it from the usable aquifers. Therefore it is impossible for these waters to mix ”, they abounded from YPF.
However, not everyone agrees with that idea. “When the hydraulic fracture is done, the hydrocarbon will seek the surface and the aquifer is on that path. So that there is 1700 meters of distance [between the formation and the water source] is not an impediment for the water to become contaminated, it is only a matter of time. Even the risks can happen when the company has left ”, warned the oil engineer Eduardo D´Elía, quoted by researcher Diego Rodil, in a study that was censored by the National Institute of Agricultural Technology.
There are other problems detected linked to agriculture. For example, in North Dakota, because of the spills, some chloride levels were so high that they exceeded the measurement capacity of the Department of Health. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection found that leaks from sewage ponds contaminated the soil and groundwater. In a third study, two Colorado scientists concluded that restoring wells requires decades and intense efforts. Finally there is the problem of light pollution, since the wells are illuminated 24 hours a day.
In 2015 a complaint was known that had wide repercussions, when the organic fruit producer Jessica Lamperti, from Allen, told on her Facebook account that a client from abroad had told her that she wanted “fruit free of fracking” and that she no longer I was going to buy.
According to data from the National Service for Agrifood Health and Quality (Senasa), in 2008, 6,453.3 hectares of pears and apples were planted in Allen. Last year there were 5,445 hectares, that is, more than a thousand hectares less.
The explanation, for Diego Rodil, is complex. He said: "There is multicausality, but bad policies towards regional economies and the free path to fracking, without consulting the public, are the main responsible."