- The wetlands around the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja have for a long time been battered by pollution, including from the region’s oil industry.
- Fishermen say the century of oil extraction here has failed to yield the promised social and economic dividends, while compromising local water resources.
- State oil company Ecopetrol now plans to carry out fracking in a series of pilot projects here, but many communities are skeptical that it will be done responsibly.
This story is a journalistic collaboration between Semana Sostenible of Colombia and Mongabay Latam.
Eugenio Chacón scans the colorful branches of the trees with his strong, sharp gaze. The 58-year-old fisherman knows for sure that at some point along the way they will appear. Suddenly he raises his right hand and waves it up and down. Cristo Carrascal, his traveling companion, quickly turns off the engine while Chacón stands up and begins to guide the boat toward the shore with a long wooden pole.
“They are there,” he said. “Can you see them?”
“They” are two small white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) moving between the tops of two bushes. With the same emotion, Chacón points out the great variety of birds soaring across the skies of the Llanito wetlands, located in the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja.
But Chacón’s enthusiasm fades as he approaches the shore. As he disembarks, after more than an hour’s journey through the murky waters of the wetlands, he says that sedimentation and pollution are destroying this strategic ecosystem.
A century of oil extraction
Jairo Puentes, a chemical engineer and oil specialist, says the wetlands act as natural water filters, regulating local temperatures and providing habitat for animal species, which, in turn, help keep the ecosystem in balance.
“Llanito is a reservoir without a flowing current which depends on the Sogamoso River [main tributary] to renew its water and redistribute waste products,” he says. “In addition, it is a buffer zone for floods, as it stores the overflow and rainwater during the winter season, which is released through pipes.”
Puentes is a professor of environmental sciences and technologies at Saint Thomas University in Bogotá. He says the Llanito wetlands in Barrancabermeja are also important because they are a source of food and employment for many fishermen, as well as a place of contemplation for locals and tourists.
“The fish that come here to spawn will later move on through the rivers,” Puentes says. “However, in recent years, this [movement] has deteriorated greatly due to sedimentation.”
For Chacón and Carrascal, the fault lies primarily with Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state-owned oil company. The fishermen say several instances of mass fish deaths have already been recorded in these wetlands. They recall events from 1990, 1992, 2011, 2014 and 2019, which led to a reduction in the fish population and, as a result, a decrease in sales for fishermen. They say that people no longer want to buy food that might be contaminated.
“Sometimes you cast a net, and when you pull it out, it is full of oil because it has accumulated in the depths,” Chacón says. “[Ecopetrol] come to take samples and never find anything, but we do find small fish from time to time with traces of oil on their heads.”
The fishermen attribute this “disaster” to the pollution of the water, which they say blame on the diminished flow of the Sogamoso River due to the Sogamoso hydroelectric project by the private energy company Isagen S.A. They also say that toxic substances from a refinery continue to affect the ecosystem, especially when the winter season arrives and the rain washes the waste through the area.
The fishermen say these substances arrive through the Rosario stream, or Caño Picho, where liquid waste from the refinery was previously deposited. They also say that every eight or 10 months, Ecopetrol allegedly discharges waste from the washing of the tanks, and this goes into the San Silvestre wetlands, which connect to the Llanito wetlands.
“That water kills everything in its path,” says Alonso Lozano, a local fisherman. “The company always [claims] that it is due to lack of oxygen that the fish die, but we do not believe that this is true.”
Ecopetrol says it does not carry out dumping of any kind in Llanito or San Silvestre. It also says the refinery does not discharge liquid residue from tank washing into any body of water.
“All of the oily water from the refinery goes to the wastewater treatment plant for treatment before being discharged into the Magdalena River,” the company says.
Ecopetrol says the only discharges from the refinery are into the Miramar wetlands, and they are of previously treated domestic rainwater and wastewater, which are subject to monitoring and control through Ecopetrol’s dumping permit by the Regional Autonomous Corporation (CAS) of the department of Santander, where Barrancabermeja is located.
Isagen, the hydropower operator, says the reduced flow of water is related to the severe summers that occur throughout the Sogamoso and Magdalena river basins.
“The water stored in the dam has actually enabled more liquid to arrive downstream than the basin is delivering,” the company says. “In other words, without the dam, it is probable that the river levels would have been lower.”
Isagen also says sedimentation of the waterway has been taking place since before the construction and operation of the hydroelectric plant.
As far as the fish deaths are concerned, Isagen says its own studies and monitoring show that fish roe are being collected during the breeding season and sold as cakes. It says this has a negative impact on fish stocks.
To mitigate the impacts and improve the supply of fish in the Sogamoso River and the dam, Isagen says it introduced more than 36 million fingerlings of bocachico (Prochilodus magdalenae) and trans-Andean shovelnose catfish (Sorubim cuspicaudus) during the construction, filling and operation stages through agreements signed with Piscícola San Silvestre, a local fish-farming operation.
“The restocking program is continuing, and that is why 3 million fingerlings were introduced in 2019, mainly bocachico, as well as other native species such as the blanquillo and dorada,” the company says. It says it will add another 3 million in 2020.
Another of the threats to Llanito is the sewage from the township and the Barrancabermeja urban area that converges there, since the Caño Picho flows there from the Miramar wetlands, where a high percentage of the untreated domestic water from the city is discharged.
A 2014 study by the University of Cartagena on toxic substances in the Miramar wetlands found, among other things, high concentrations of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which are considered carcinogens, as well as high levels of lead, mercury and nickel in the sediments. The study also found thriving cyanobacteria, which can cause disease.
“The refinery is contributing to their pollution, but the main source of metals and [hazardous air pollutants] is very likely to be the direct [result of the release] of sewage from the city into the wetlands,” the study concluded.
Ecopetrol says that, due to the hydrology of the system, it’s not possible for waters from the Caño Picho to enter the San Silvestre wetlands. It says the water naturally drains out of the wetlands and into the Sogamoso River, not vice versa.
Still, Ecopetrol doesn’t have a wastewater treatment plant, despite an average annual budget of 500 billion pesos (about $125 million) over the last five years. Some items are now being allocated to carry out treatment.
“From 2010 until now, everything has changed because the water level of the Llanito wetlands has fallen,” says Cristo Carrascal, the fisherman. He says he believes this is due, in part, to the large amounts of sediment and organic matter that enter unchecked, and also to pollution from hydrocarbons.
Fear of fracking
The latest threat to the wetlands’ water resources, and the ecosystem as a whole, is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Ecopetrol has several fracking pilot projects planned for later this year in the Magdalena Medio region, and already there are concerns. Carrascal says he has heard that a large amount of water will be required for fracking operations. That water could come from the wetlands, just as happened with traditional oil drilling activities.
Óscar Sampayo is a political scientist and member of the Yariguíes Regional Corporation–Group of Extractive and Environmental Studies of Magdalena Medio, a nonprofit organization that has been working since the end of 2013 on the study of environmental permits allowing hydrocarbon exploitation in this region. Sampayo says the districts of Hortensia and El Porvenir in Llanito are part of the pilot fracking area in Ecopetrol’s APE Guane-A well, which covers more than 57 square kilometers (22 square miles). This area does not have potable water or gas. And it’s here, in an area spanning more than 8,000 football fields, that up to 14 wells could be built.
“This is an area where water is abundant, [but] the problem is that most of it is polluted,” Sampayo says. “At the end of the ’80s, between 3,000 and 4,000 tons of fish were taken per year from these wetlands, and now they do not even take 100. The situation is tending to get worse since, as in the Frontera township and 12 other municipalities of Magdalena Medio, the production of the existing oil fields will be expanded through improved recovery [fracking], which is also based on the injection of water.”
Fracking is typically used after conventional forms of oil extraction have been exhausted. It requires injecting water, polymers and steam under high pressure to force normally inaccessible pockets of oil into the existing well, from where it can then be extracted. This technique improves what’s known as the oil recovery factor — the percentage of oil deposits that can be recovered.
The average recovery factor in Colombia is approximately 19% according to the Colombian Petroleum Association. Around 90% of the 320 producing fields are currently producing in their primary stage — that is, through conventional extraction, and not enhanced oil recovery techniques such as fracking.
Looking for alternatives to oil
To prevent what they fear could be out-of-control exploitation of their natural resources, residents of Barrancabermeja are looking for economic alternatives, such as tourism and agriculture, that will allow them to move away from oil.
“The city’s economy must make a 180-degree turn,” says Darinel Villamizar Ruiz, president of the Barrancabermeja city council. “We have one of the largest [river] ports in Latin America that we must make use of: Impala. Ecopetrol has not been completely responsible in its dealings with the city, [and] there are several environmental liabilities that have not been resolved, such as that of the Lisama 158 oil spill. It has a historical debt that has not been settled, and that is why people no longer trust it.”
Another pending liability, according to the Yariguíes Regional Corporation, is the Nutrias 14 well, which, the organization says, was not properly closed as required by regulations.
Luis Sánchez, a city councilor, says that Centro district, which he represents and where the Colombian oil industry was born, remains underdeveloped.
“One hundred years of production have taken place, and there are many needs that have not yet been met,” Sánchez says. “Growth has occurred for oil companies and their contractors, but not for the communities.”
“Knowledge of what fracking is and its implications is very low,” says Alexis Guerrero, a member of the social organization Ciudadela Educativa. He says he thinks the company has divided communities based on benefits, public works programs that should have been carried out by the state, and promises of jobs.
“Corruption has also played an important role,” Guerrero says, “since the leaders do not invest resources in solving the underlying problems of the communities such as safe drinking water or food security.”
Local businesswoman Andrea González says she doesn’t know much about fracking, but says she believes it will reinvigorate the local economy in a way that’s needed for the city, given that the refinery modernization plan announced in 2011 was never implemented and that many businesspeople invested millions of pesos in the refurbishment and construction of hotels and restaurants based on that promise of higher sales.
Edward Tovar, a petroleum engineer in charge of Ecopetrol’s unconventional deposits, says that if the company didn’t do well in the past, it must make amends and evolve so that it does things better going forward. He says social acceptance is a process that is built day by day and must be based on knowledge.
“It is very important to know what it is and how things are going to be done, because only then can we understand them,” he says. “In this respect, pilot projects are necessary. To deny ourselves that option would be to shut down the opportunity for science to give us its verdict.”
However, many communities don’t trust such promises, saying there hasn’t been any economic and social progress in the region for a century. They say they doubt that fracking will bring a different future from the life they now live.
Support from Ministry of Mines and Energy
The Ministry of Mines and Energy acknowledges that for several decades the hydrocarbon industry operated in the country, and in Magdalena Medio in particular, without any environmental regulations prior to the creation in 1993 of the National Environmental System (SINA). Today, the ministry says, companies must meet very high technical, social and environmental standards to prevent negative social and environmental impacts. It also says the state is now carrying out more stringent monitoring and control.
“The integral research pilot projects will be subject to the strictest design, surveillance, monitoring and control by the competent entities and authorities,” the ministry says. “It is precisely this constant monitoring, with citizen and academic oversight, that will allow early warnings to be given to prevent impacts and act quickly in the event that a suspension is necessary.”
The ministry says the pilot projects should be an opportunity to launch a new relationship model between communities, local authorities, companies and national authorities that facilitates the effective participation of all stakeholders and the joint preparation of ideas for development.
“The decree that sets out the guidelines for the pilots establishes transparency, territorial dialogue, institutional strengthening … and the establishment of a program of social appropriation of knowledge so that communities can exercise their oversight in an informed manner, among other guidelines,” the ministry says.
According to the ministry, the hydrocarbon industry drives much of the development of the Magdalena Medio region and many other parts of the country by generating jobs and revenue that translates into public works, benefits and social investment such as that represented by the General Royalties System, which distributes the profits from resource extraction in Colombia.
“Barrancabermeja has benefited since 2012 from royalties of around 130 billion pesos [about $32 million], and its investment with these resources has been focused mainly on the areas of safe drinking water, transportation and education,” the ministry says. “It has co-financed around 30 projects of impact in these territories totaling more than 350 billion [$86 million].”
Banner image of Cristo Petrolero Monument in the Miramar wetlands in Barrancabermeja by Pilar Mejía/Semana.
This article was first published by Mongabay Latam on March 25, 2020.