Police arrest and assault German photojournalist at fracking waste site in Argentina

By OPSur, Neuquen, Argentina.- German photojournalist Stefan Borghardt was detained and beaten and had his equipment confiscated by police because of taking photographs of the Treater oil waste treatment plant in the town of Añelo. Borghardt was reporting on fracking in Argentina, particularly the Vaca Muerta megaproject.

The Treater plant is used by the oil companies YPF, Total, Exxon, Pan American Energy (partly owned by BP) and Pampa Energía to dump highly toxic waste resulting from fracking. The Neuquén Mapuche Confederation and several NGOs submitted official complaints about unsafe conditions at the plant last December.

Borghardt was taking pictures of the waste storage pools when a supervisor told him to stop and erase the images. Later, the supervisor handed him over to the police who took him to Añelo’s brand new police station (Comisaria No. 10).

On the way to the police station, the officers mockingly read his cell phone, reproduced his conversations on the loudspeaker and asked him insistently who he worked for. Once out of the car, Borghardt was handcuffed. At the police station he was asked to sign the record of his detention without reading it in detail, to which he refused. According to Borghardt account on his Facebook page,

“We went down to the basement cells and I was surrounded by about five to seven officers, I do not remember well, it was all very cloudy and scary for me. Several (at least three) hit me, kicked me and insulted me. An officer who threatened me with a broom from afar told me that he hated the Germans, all the Germans. All the while I had my hands up in the air and pleaded for them not to hurt me.”

Borghardt studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the University of Art and Applied Sciences in Hannover, Germany.

Today Borghardt will file a complaint with the provincial prosecutor’s office against the police station chief and his superiors, alleging breach of duties of public officials, abuse of authority, and undue confiscation of property. In addition, Borghardt requests an investigation into the conduct of waste treatment company Treater, and internal investigations against the individual personnel who participated in the events.

Police harassment against people trying to document conditions at oil & gas industry locations is usual in Neuquen. But this is the first time a journalist had suffered this level of violence. The National Round Table of Press Workers and the Association of Argentinian Photojournalists have expressed their solidarity with Borghardt and denounced the attack as violating democracy and the freedom of expression. Thanks to the support of local movements and unions, and publicity in local and national media, today Stefan recovered his work equipment.

The few photographs that Borghardt was able to rescue document the risky conditions at the waste treatment site. Civil society groups launched an official complaint about these conditions back in December. At the time of the complaint, Greenpeace said the waste was deposited directly on the ground, without an adequate drainage ditch or waterproofing. In addition, the dump is located just five kilometres away from the city of Añelo, violating a provincial decree which guarantees a larger safe distance for waste facilities plants from residential areas.

Fracking on a large scale generates thousands of tons of waste. Since the exploitation of the Vaca Muerta reserve began, the treatment plants have become a serious inconvenience. The provincial environmental regulator has not adequately enforced control measures at waste treatment plants. Images taken by journalists, neighbors or workers are one of the few ways to control the environmental damage.