Statement in Response to Events in Pungeşti, Romania on the Evening of June 11, 2014
Article by Dr Sandra Steingraber
Photo: Sandra Steingraber spoke about the health impacts of fracking at a public gathering in Pungesti, Romania on 11 June 2014, just prior to the walk along the village road that prompted police brutality.
On Wednesday 11 June, I traveled to the remote community of Pungeşti in eastern Romania’s Vaslui County. Rising from a field bordering the village of Siliştea, near the only public road in and out of the area, is a drill rig installed by Chevron for purposes of shale gas “exploration.” Villagers told me that drilling had commenced in May. This rig—the first shale gas well in all of Romania—went on line in spite of an intense, months-long oppositional campaign by locals that was joined and supported by activists from all over Romania.
For background on this struggle and the police brutality experienced by anti-fracking activists and those supporting them, see the December 2013 report by David Heller and Antoine Simon of Friends of the Earth Europe.
About 300 people inhabit Siliştea. The population of the Pungeşti community as a whole, which incorporates nine neighboring villages, is about 3,000.
I spent three days in Pungeşti, June 11-13, talking with villagers, visiting their homes and fields, and observing the situation there. During this time, it became clear to me that Romania’s gendarmerie (military police), are being used as a security force for a private U.S. company, Chevron.
Throughout my three-day visit, gendarmes were ever-present at the gated access road leading to the well pad. On the evening of June 11, I witnessed gendarmes close the public highway near the drill rig, thus restricting free travel of villagers in their own community. I also saw villagers brutalized by gendarmes who released some kind of spray at point-blank range into the faces of people who, insisting on their right to walk freely down the main public road of their community, attempted to remove the fence that prevented their passage. Those affected by the spray included young children and elderly people. Here follows a detailed account of events.
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Shortly after 7 pm, on June 11, at an outdoor gathering, I gave a presentation on the scientific evidence for the health and environmental impacts of fracking to an audience about 100 villagers in Siliştea. As men returned from working in their fields, more people joined the crowd. Two members of the human rights organization Romania Without Them assisted with translation (www.stopfracturare.ro). The mood was welcoming, although villagers also expressed anger that their opposition to shale gas drilling in their community had been forcibly put down in December.
My speech took place on a platform that had been erected in the side yard of a small house located nearest the drill rig. This house and its surrounding fencing were festooned with anti-fracking and anti-Chevron signs and banners. Translators told me that it had been rented for a small price to anti-fracking activists after their December 7 eviction from the nearby tent camps. Referred as the “House of Resistance,” this building serves as the headquarters for local anti-fracking organizing.
The din of the drill rig, located 650 meters away, across an open field, was audible throughout—and indeed never ceased during my three-day visit to the area.
People in my audience asked many questions—some shouted out to me during my presentation—and shared with me observations and concerns during the Q and A that followed. These included reports of headaches and feelings of general sickness since the drilling began, along with reports of odors coming from the well site. One woman reported that she had recently witnessed black smoke coming from the well site while walking with her cows in a pastured area on the hill above the drill rig. Many people expressed fear of water contamination and concern that their children will have no future in Pungeşti.
Referring to the stress-inducing noise of the drill rig, one woman said that she and her family could feel relentless sound coming through the ground itself and into their home: “There is no more silence in Pungeşti.”
Villagers said that the trucks servicing the Chevron site most often came after dark and drove dangerously fast. (I also witnessed this directly.)
I heard many complaints about abuse of authority, including the mayor. Two people independently told me that villagers had initiated a referendum to remove the mayor from office because of his role in the transfer of public land to Chevron with the complicity of other governmental officials at a higher level. However, attempts to file the referendum had been blocked. I was told that this kind of thwarting of a public procedure had never before occurred.
I heard many complaints from anti-fracking leaders about the secrecy of Chevron’s plans, including the source of the water used to mix the drilling muds.
By far, the most common complaint concerned the behavior of the gendarmes who guarded the well site and who had created a “special security zone” in the village.
Since the arrival of Chevron, according to villagers, the gendarmes have established a permanent presence in the community. As a result, people are prevented from moving freely or traveling from one village to the next. Villagers estimated that about 300 gendarmes were stationed in Pungeşti last fall. This number swelled to about 500 during early December when villagers and their supporters were forcibly evicted from their protest camp. Since then, I was told, about 30 gendarmes had a 24-hour presence in the village and periodically closed the single road into and out of the village with fencing, allowing no passage except for Chevron trucks and local traffic driving away from the drill rig.
Throughout my three-day visit, I heard many stories of police beatings, including one by a 15-year-old boy.
I was asked if violence against anti-shale gas protesters also occurred in the United States. Villagers asked me what they should do in response to the violence by the gendarmes. I was asked if there were places in the United States where people had successfully stopped shale gas fracking and, if so, how had they accomplished such a delay.
After my presentation, audience members began to chant slogans against Chevron and shale gas and invited me to accompany them on an impromptu march to the drill site. Many children, including one as young as two or three, walked with us, along with numerous elderly men and men. An elderly woman took my hand as we walked. The mood was energetic and joyful, albeit defiant.
As we continued walking, about 30 military police dressed in black uniforms that identified them as gendarmes appeared on the road ahead of us, pulled fencing across the road, and formed a tight line behind the fence.
As we approached the opposing line of gendarmes, the mood became increasingly tense. Protesters waved fists and shouted and chanted more loudly. These chants were translated for me as, “Gendarmes defend the thieves!” and “Stop Chevron!” The villagers asked to pass. Gendarmes closed ranks but did not respond verbally.
On the far right edge, a scuffle broke out as villagers attempted to grab and remove the fencing from the road. A tug of war between gendarmes and villagers followed, with each side holding and pulling the fencing.
I then saw a gendarme at the far end of the line point and spray a canister in the faces of protesters directly in front of him. Some people immediately doubled over. I saw people retching, screaming, coughing, and wheezing. The mood among villagers now changed to fear and what seemed to me a kind of stunned disbelief. Many marchers began to retreat, and the tug of war over the fencing ceased.
At this point, my 12-year-old son and I walked quickly back down the road in an attempt to move upwind from the dissipating spray. Our throats and eyes became sore and irritated and remained so for the rest of the evening, although we were not otherwise badly affected or disabled.
From a safe position a few hundred feet away from the fence, I turned to watch others run by. I saw elderly people gasping and crying. I saw children clutching their throats, coughing, and retching.
Altogether, the conflict at the fence line lasted 15 or 20 minutes
Throughout my three-day visit, local police and military police cars followed the car in which I was riding, as I traveled within Pungeşti and to and from our hotel in nearby Vaslui.
On the second day, one villager showed me cracks in the walls and ceilings of a nearby “traditional” home, which was constructed from clay and straw bricks. I was told that the cracks had formed soon after the roads filled with heavy trucks and equipment for well construction.
Many homes are located only a few feet from the main road. An overturned fracking truck would easily crush them.
National Highway 2F, which connects the villages of Pungeşti to the nearest sizable city of Vaslui, is the sole road into and out of the area. It is a curving, narrow, two-lane highway without continuous shoulders. The road is used by many kinds of vehicles, including especially horse-drawn carts.
Because of the lack of a shoulder, horse carts frequently stop in the middle of the road, which requires vehicle traffic to swerve into the oncoming lane. Horse carts in Pungeşti do not bear reflective signage and are very difficult to see in the dark.
On the night of a full moon, I saw many horse carts loaded with hay still traveling the highway long after the sun had set.
This same road is also shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, dogs, and cattle, which were typically led by children or elderly people.
This same road is the only possible route for the fracking related trucks and for the transportation of drilling- and fracking-related chemicals, water, and equipment.
Not only houses but also drinking water wells, troughs for watering livestock and horses, and the piped taps of artesian springs are all located just a few feet from the edge of the highway. These water sources are as are shared communally by numerous families. The homes that I visited were not served by running water. Instead, women and children carrying buckets walked along Highway 2F to fetch water from to the nearest well. This well water was used for all household needs: drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.
I asked to see three drinking water wells along the highway. All were lined with brick or cement, and the well diameter ranged from one to three feet. When not in use, water wells are covered with wooden lids. The surface of the water is located about 10 meters below ground level. Several people boasted to me about the sweet taste of the well water in this region and expressed grave concern for its safety, not only from drilling-related chemical contamination but also from the impact of vibrations from truck traffic, as the distance between the road and the wells is just a few feet.
It was clear to me that any accident involving a spill from a truck hauling hazardous materials could easily contaminate these wide-mouthed wells, which are topped only by small wooden roofs to allow those fetching water to stand out of the sun or rain.
The artesian springs attract local commuters who stop to fill bottles and jugs. There are no pull-off areas, so cars simply parked on the highway while water was gathered. These springs are also used to water livestock. One such spring—located within a half-mile of the Chevron drill rig—is tapped to fill a stone trough where cattle and horses are brought to drink.
On one occasion, the car in which I was traveling was forced to stop in the middle of the highway for several minutes in order to yield to a large herd of oncoming cattle.
According to villagers, cattle drink from rivers and streams when they are pastured during the summer months. In the winter, cattle stay inside and drink groundwater.
In Pungeşti, agriculture is practiced largely by hand labor and horse-drawn plow. Small, tillable fields of corn, beans, sunflowers, hay, and winter wheat alternate with pastures to create a patchworked landscape. During my visit, farmers and their families worked to weed and thin corn, some of which was interplanted with beans.
I was told that fresh milk that comes from cattle is available year round. Milk from sheep and goats is used for cheese. Many front yards are planted with grapevines and apple trees. Both wine and bread are made locally and with local ingredients. Farmers are proudly self-sufficient. One told me that he was proud to be an organic farmer who uses no chemicals.
This same farmer expressed concern to me about possible chemical contamination of his crops and milk as a result of fracking and the possible loss of his markets. He asked me if U.S. farmers who live near drilling rigs have problems selling their products. He told me that he has heard that some buyers, as a result of the drilling activity, are already shunning crops from Pungeşti.
Another farmer told me, with sadness, “We waited 50 years for the Americans to arrive, and they brought Chevron.”
More information on Dr Steingraber’s visit and her lectures on public health and fracking in Europe:
- Read remarks from the EU Green week, Environmentalism Summit. “A New Environmentalism for an Unfractured Future.”
- Read her Op-ed in Euractiv– “Fracking is a public health disaster. The US and Europe should say ’No!’ ”
Originally posted on 17 June 2014