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In One Argentine City, Explosive Growth And Oil Don't Mix

Modest working families forced to live next to oil and gas wells fear for their families' safety after a nearby explosion.

Fire in Plottier
Fire in Plottier
Gisele Sousa Dias

PLOTTIER — When the modest working families here were told years ago that they would finally be able to have a house of their own for very little money, they felt fortunate. They didn't care that the area had no asphalt or was between a clandestine rubbish dump and hundreds of gas and oil wells. They were assured that there was no risk of any kind. And they believed it.

But then, what supposedly could not happen in this Argentine city, happened. Now, in this neighborhood of dry land, the residents feel as though they effectively live in a minefield. If one gas well could explode just over a block away from the houses, as it did last week, who's to say others won't too?

Under the city of Plottier, 15 kilometers from the province’s capital Neuquén, there are 140 wells for gas and oil extraction. Some are further away, but at least 50 of them are less than 500 meters from residential areas. One sits just in front of the school across the street.

It was a Pluspetrol gas well that exploded July 29 after a crane collapsed on a pipeline. The incident caused a spark, which was followed by an explosion that made the earth tremble, creating a crushing noise similar to the sounds of airplane turbines. An elite group from the United States came and helped to control the fire and stop the gas leak.

So the question here might be the same one you'd ask yourself at the sight of people living at the base of an active volcano. Why did these families choose to live here if they knew that there were oil and gas wells — and that there would be a growing number of them over time? The short answer: They didn't.

“I signed up for a municipal plan and this place was assigned to me,” says a woman named Liliana, who lives with her husband, children and mother in a tiny makeshift home resembling a wooden box. “Nobody said that they would send us here. I pay 35 pesos ($2.77) a month and will pay them for 30 years, but the land is mine.”

Her home was the closest to the explosion. “That night, I grabbed the kids and left the city shaking,” she says. “It looked as though the glass was going to explode on top of us. Now, I don’t know what to do. It is terrible to feel that you have this under you because you don't know what you're stepping on. They came to tell me that everything is alright, but why would I believe them? I just want these wells to be far away and to be left in peace.”

Uncontrolled growth

Today, Plottier is a planning nightmare. Because there were more and more residents coming to live in the province, city officials had to find places for them. Some were given a municipal plan to have their own land for little money. They built what they could: houses or makeshift ones made of wooden boxes with sheets. Others were awarded federal housing plans. These teachers, oil workers and traders managed to be owners by paying a third of what rent would be in the capital.

But every single person, without exception, was sent here to this area. Both the smaller, makeshift houses and the two-story homes with cable were built next to the wells. The population continued to grow even as the government went on to authorize three companies to create more wells. The one that exploded was brand new as of this year.

“Why did no one complain about what might happen?” asks Norberto Calducci, one of the teachers who has been demanding the closure of the well in front of the school. “Because the oil company painted the school and promised a park and carousel for the kids. Luckily, the explosion did not happen here with the kids. That would have been a tragedy.” He was accused of being an alarmist trying to undermine the growth of a thriving city.

For now, the fire is out. Doubts are all that remain, as long as there is no law that prohibits oil companies from moving toward the houses. This sense of lingering fear is all Andrea Rodriguez feels. On Monday, when she thought her house would collapse on her family, she escaped to the car with her two kids in pajamas. “I had no idea that this could happen, and I planned our life here. Now I wonder if it will happen again, if we should go, if for the sake of having our own house, we came to the wrong place.”

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