A Greenpeace Andino investigation has exposed how oil companies operating in Vaca Muerta, one of the world’s largest unconventional reserves of oil and gas, are using illegal dumps operated by local waste treatment company Treater S.A. Oil majors Shell and Total are dumping thousands of tonnes of toxic oil and industrial waste from their fracking operations in open waste ponds in the sensitive Patagonian environment. Treater’s clients in the region also include ExxonMobil, Pan American Energy (a subsidiary of BP), and the state-owned YPF.
“The way these oil companies operate is pure environmental vandalism and demonstrates how little control local authorities truly have,” said Paul Horsman, spokesperson for Greenpeace Andino’s climate and energy campaign. “Oil-soaked soils and polluted air may be business as usual for companies like Shell and Total, but the government of Argentina cannot afford to continue putting oil industry profits before the health of its communities. With climate scientists warning that the world has just 12 years to cut fossil fuel use by 50%, it is madness to spend billions of dollars fracking Patagonia into oblivion.”
The Vaca Muerta reserves house approximately 830 fracking wells, each one generating between 600 to 850 cubic metres of waste in a month of operation. To be transported to treatment plants, much of that waste must pass through cities, communities, drinking water sources, and agricultural fields.
Greenpeace Andino researchers took samples of soil and sludge from locations around the cities of Añelo and Neuquén, including from the Treater waste facility, revealing dangerous amounts of hydrocarbon chemicals and volatile organic components. This pollution poses a health risk for communities in Añelo, whose agricultural fields and drinking water sit less than five kilometres from the illegal dump sites. In less than two years, one of these waste dumps has grown from roughly six hectares to 13.6 hectares, the size of 15 football pitches. None of the hazardous waste is being treated in accordance with provincial or national laws in place to protect communities and the environment.
In response, the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén filed a criminal complaint in October calling on the Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate potential criminal liability. Last week, authorities from the office of Environmental Crimes and Special Laws raided Treater’s offices.
“We denounce the company Treater Neuquén S.A., responsible for environmental contamination with hazardous waste, for deficient treatment and disposal of the oil industry’s waste,” said Héctor Jorge Nawel, coordinator for the Xawvn Ko area of the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén. “It is critical that the state authorities and oil company executives who allowed this happen be held accountable, and that our right to a healthy environment be respected.”
On December 7, Greenpeace Andino wrote to the CEO’s of Treater S.A. and of the six implicated oil companies inviting them to comment on its findings. As of this release, Treater has responded, claiming its operation is legal without addressing the specific findings to the contrary. Shell has acknowledged a relationship with Treater, but claimed the authorities are responsible for oversight of its operations. Total has requested a meeting with Greenpeace, but has not commented on the findings of the investigation. The remaining companies have not responded.