Lago Agrio

We drove out to Lago Agrio, which is the place where the first oil well was built in Ecuador. The town grew from the activity of the oil industry, and even now is mainly just an oil town.

Donald Moncayo, a mycologist and friend of AMP, has lived in the area his entire life, and he took us on a tour of some of the sites where waste and crude had been dumped in large quantities. The first site he took us to appeared on the surface to look like a normal patch of land with dirt and plants growing on it. But Donald shoveled less than two feet below the surface to show us that the soil is saturated with petroleum. The land is still polluted.

The story behind sites like this is that it used to be an open pit of crude. Sometimes Texaco would test the flow rate of a well by measuring how many barrels of crude would run out during a certain amount of time, like a minute, so they would know how many barrels the well was producing per day. And the crude would run out into these pits that the company created specifically for this purpose. This pit was ordered to be remediated, and so years later the company returned to put a thin layer of dirt over the top of it.

The handful of dirt Donald brought up from a few inches under the surface reeked of petroleum. But you could look at it and think it just looked like dark dirt. So we put some bottled water in a bowl and mixed the soil with it. The oil flows to the top and sticks to the sides of the plastic, creating a dark brown sheen.

He showed us the “cuella de ganzo” or drainage pipe that all of the pits have. The pipe is level with the top of the pit and allows oil and water to spill out when it rains so that the pit does not overflow. All of these pita have drainage pipes that lead into a stream or other water source.

The second pit we went to was never covered. Over decades, leaf litter from the trees and plant material fell onto the top of the pit, creating a layer of dirt for plants to grow on top of. The roots of these plants are quite superficial and don’t extend past the thin layer of soil on top. The later of soil, roots, and tar on the surface of the pit make a solid enough surface to walk on, which Donald did. I don’t recommend it though, because falling through a weak spot would like like falling into quicksand. That causes cancer.

Walking down to look at the stream, the water looks clear enough. But if you take a stick and stir up the mud on the bottom, - or as Donald explained it, when an animal comes to drink and steps into the stream - an oil sheen appears on the surface and the water turns gray. In many places there is an orange buildup below the surface. Donald said this was from iron released from drilling, which then oxidizes in the water - rust.

Downstream from this area, you can see the sheen from the oil on the riverbanks, and there were people bathing and washing their clothes in the river.