Saturday, July 30, 2011

With my own eyes

I just spent the last four days exploring and documenting, in detail, three of the more than 600 unlined oil waste pits in northern Ecuador. These three locations have been healing for more than 30 years since they were perversely transformed from pristine Amazon rainforest ecosystems into swimming pool-sized depositories of crude oil and drilling waste. These places have since been steadily recolonized by a diversity of Life. With a dynamic team of emerging scientists and solutionaries, we set out to document the plants and fungi that thrive in what is still, for many a deadly and toxic environment. If we are going to help heal the damaged Earth, we must get to know and learn to work with our allies in this regenerative process.

This was not an accident.

Oil production is Ecuador's largest export industry. Oil drilling began here in 1964, when Texas-based Texaco (now owned by Chevron), started drilling in northeast Ecuador, an area of unparallelled and untamed natural beauty. When a new oil well is drilled, a large amount of water is used, and a large amount of waste (including heavy metals) is produced. It has to go somewhere - this is a given in the industry. Here, it is also industry practice to let the pump run at full speed for hours in order to determine production rate, before it is even hooked up for processing.

For hours at a time, the oil flows out of the ground into un-lined pits near the pump site (in the US, Chevron and other oil companies must follow state laws requiring liners on waste pits, and use more advanced technology). After decades of oil exploration, Ecuador is pock-marked by these point sources of pollution, and people continue to suffer from Texaco's legacy of environmental destruction.

As part of the intensive 10 day service learning course which began my 5 week internship with the Amazon Mycorenewal Project , we took a “Toxic Tour” of some of these breath-taking (literally) sites, guided by life-long community member, educator and activist, Donald Moncoya. He played near these pits as a child - no one told him it was dangerous. He remembers when the pit next to his family farm burned for days, making the sun shine dark red through thick and foul smoke. He lead us to a “remediated” pool site - a muddy yet relatively appealing (by my New England standards) tropical setting next to a small farm, where the oil executives take the press to serve them Coca-Cola and show them how responsible they are.

Esto es lo que no muestran los periodistas,” (“This is what they don't show the reporters,”) he said as he plunged a core boring device into the ground. Seconds later, we were smelling a handful of black and shiny asphalt retrieved from a few centimeters below the surface. It had the overwhelming aroma of oil.

We visited another site, which was more readily apparent as the toxic environment it really is – a swamp of asphalt and oil waste, covered with a thin layer of vegetation. He showed us how, as a matter of regular practice, the companies build overflow pipes, which, in times of big rain (which tends to happen in the rainforest), direct the influx of rainwater, mixed with this witch's brew of carcinogens towards waterways that feed directly into rivers used by local indigenous people, eventually flowing into the Amazon River, itself.

Much to our surprise, Donald began walking along the surface through the middle of the toxic pool, sinking slightly with each smooth wide step. The area around him swelled, generating large waves of disturbance in the thick layers of asphalt covered with vegetation that floated on the pool of water and oil waste. Our entire class gasped in astonishment, how he walked across the surface without falling in.

I had no idea that only a week or so later, I would, myself be walking across the surface of similar pools, albeit in a less calm and collected manner.