In a Facebook post titled, “A story of my odyssey through Vaca Muerta,” Stefan Borghardt accused the police in Neuquén province of physical violence and the confiscation of his equipment on January 7, after he was caught taking pictures at a facility owned by waste management firm Treater Neuquén, which has been contracted by firms including Shell, Total, Exxon, Pan American Energy (a subsidiary of BP), and the state-owned firm YPF.
Borghardt, 28, was photographing waste dumps containing oil and industrial waste from the exploration and production of oil and natural gas from the Vaca Muerta shale formation.
According to Borghardt, he was apprehended by private security personnel in the vicinity of Treater’s lot 56, near Añelo municipality. Using two professional cameras and his phone, Borghardt took several pictures of open waste pits.
According to local police, Borghardt had trespassed onto Treater’s property, giving them reason to detain him. He was taken to the Precinct 10 police station, where he identified himself using his passport.
That’s when things get a little messy. On his way to the police station, Borghardt claims he was told to delete the images, while a police officer took his phone and read personal messages and voice recordings. Once in the station, he identified himself as a journalist, providing accreditation, but nevertheless Borghardt says his cameras were confiscated and he was asked to hastily sign documentation.
After refusing, claims Borghardt, police officers locked him up in a cell. “They hit me, kicked me, and one officer harassed me with a broom telling me from a distance that he hated Germans. Another officer insisted that I hurry up taking my shoelaces off, noting he could help me while pulling out a pocket knife to intimidate me,” he wrote.
More than four hours later, the photographer was released, but the cameras remained under police custody.
The situation escalated to the point where provincial authorities and the German Embassy in Argentina have now become involved. Mariano Gaido, a minister responsible for labour, social development, and security, has personally requested “a full report” from Commissioner Rubén Tissier, Neuquén’s ranking policy officer.
“I have absolute respect for the labour of journalists and what this means in terms of the distribution of information,” he told local daily Diario Río Negro, “I want to make sure all information is available for anyone who seeks it.”
Although the firm asked police to guarantee that Borghardt’s pictures remain unpublished, the young photographer took to Facebook to post four of them independently showing the current state of the open pit pools. Treater was already in the hot seat after a Greenpeace investigation alleged the dumps were creating hazardous conditions for the environment and people living there.
“Greenpeace Andino researchers took samples of soil and sludge from locations around the cities of Añelo and Neuquén, including from the Treater waste facility, revealing dangerous amounts of hydrocarbon chemicals and volatile organic components,” the NGO said in a report.