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Romanian Villagers Managed to Keep Fracking Out of Their Backyard

Chevron have suspended their plans to drill the ground around Pungeşti.

People protesting against fracking in Pungeşti, Romania.

Back in 2010, energy titan Chevron bought around two million acres of Romanian land. Their plan was to start fracking for shale gas throughout their concessions in the northern Vaslui and southern Dobrogea regions of the country in the second half of 2013, continuing to do so for the next 30 years while building giant gas rigs and pumping around 900,000 litres of chemicals into the earth along the way.

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The problem with fracking is that pumping all those chemicals into the ground can contaminate the local water supply – affecting both the stuff farmers rely on to hydrate their crops and the stuff you drink from your tap to stay alive – and can arguably cause earthquakes from all that subterranean rock being blasted all over the place. These side effects are a particular worry for the region of Vaslui, as its soil is dry and fresh water is already a rare commodity in rural areas.

Not wanting to be shown up by their neighbours in the north, as soon as the initial probing started in the Dobrogea region, hundreds of small earthquakes hit the nearby Galaţi county. And even though there's been no scientific proof that it was Chevron's operations that were responsible for the quakes, it presumably wasn't what the company's PR department wanted to hear.

All of this is why 600 angry farmers from the village of Pungeşti in Vaslui county ended up forming a human chain last week to stall the Chevron bulldozers heading for their land.

The protest in Pungeşti.

Two hundred riot policemen came out to visit the protesters on the first day of the demonstration, and – according to witnesses on the scene – five of the more elderly locals present ended up in hospital after being roughed up by over-eager officers.

Costică Spiridon, a 76-year-old who's become something of a hero for the Pungeşti movement, was apparently being intubated [where a tube is inserted into an orifice, usually to add or remove fluids] when I called, so instead I rang Ovidiu Tiron – a member of centre-right party The Civic Platform – to talk about the protest.

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"They pushed Spiridon for daring to build a tent next to this location," he told me from the demonstration, referring to the campsite he was trying set up to continue protesting overnight. "I'm sitting next to it and the generator he brought. The riot police, in full battle armour, keep trying to raze it."

After speaking to Tiron I called Father Adrian Ţapu, who seemed a little overexcited by the protests: "Spiridon was pushed in the ditch by the riot police," he said. "Bulldozers are crushing people around here. Even though we were sitting peacefully, the riot police started pushing and provoking us. I think they killed one of the leaders of the protests."

A tent at the protest in Pungeşti.

Nobody had been killed, but the paranoia surrounding the protest explains why Father Tapu may have thought they had; various Facebook groups for the movement are saturated with rumours about riot police purposefully trying to slaughter all the OAPs in attendance. There is, however, no evidence for this. In fact, Romanian site Bârlad Online filmed the policemen actively chasing the farmers, and there definitely isn't any footage of riot police bludgeoning pensioners to death with their nightsticks.

Matei Budeş, an activist with the campaign group VIRA Association, told me that the paranoia was fuelled by the actions of some of the police officers: "They got into an ambulance, so the protesters wouldn't see them approach," he said. "It was very suspicious. Some [officers] were talking about how they should throw gasoline on the protesters to scare them. Luckily, there were people filming so they couldn't do it."

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Protesters marching in solidarity with Pungesti in Bucharest. (Photo by Cristian Munteanu)

Another rumour suggested that riot police were going to turn up under the cover of darkness to force the protesters out, which caused hundreds of people from nearby cities to rush to the farmers' aid.

One of those who came to help, Ioan Creţu, told me, "Yesterday, I got a call from a colleague, who was protesting [in Pungeşti]. She was crying that the riot policemen had shoved them. At 5PM, I arrived along with a lot of people from the cities of Bârlad, Roman, Vaslui and Iaşi, so the people of Pungeşti got a morale boost. None of us reacted violently."

For now, the protests have worked – Chevron have suspended the fracking operation in Pungeşti. However, all of their equipment has been left half an hour's drive from the village and Matei told me that he expects the protests to continue.

With the demonstrations against the Canadian-funded Rosia Montana goldmine in western Romania also continuing – and with crowds in Bucharest demonstrating in solidarity with both rural anti-fracking and anti-goldmine protesters – the country is currently a hotbed of environmental protest, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world. All that's left to be seen now is whether the huge international companies behind the two controversial projects will listen to the Romanian people and move their equipment out for good.

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More stories from Romania:

Romanian Protesters Still Don't Want Gold Companies to Blow Up Their Mountains

Gold Miners Are Exhuming and Trafficking Corpses in Romania

Romania's Fish Aren't Being Asphyxiated, Just Poisoned

Romanian Immigrants and Their Magnificent Mansions