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Father Laiu fights to save rural Romania from fracking

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://lifestyle.xin.msn.com/en/beauty-fashion/father-laiu-fights-to-save-rural-romania-from-fracking Updated: Friday, 07 June 2013 11:55 | By Agence
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      Updated: Friday, 07 June 2013 11:55 | By Agence France-Presse

      Father Laiu fights to save rural Romania from fracking

      As Orthodox priest Vasile Laiu gazes over the picturesque hills of
      eastern Romania, he prays they will be spared the shale gas wells and
      drilling rigs dotting some US landscapes.

      For months the 50-year-old cleric has been one of the most outspoken
      opponents to plans by US energy giant Chevron to drill for shale gas in
      this rural and impoverished region.

      Clad in his black cassock, Father Laiu has joined thousands of locals in
      street protests against a project he says "threatens man, nature and
      future generations".

      Growing up in an oil-producing region, he is not an enemy of the energy
      industry, he insists.

      But like many he opposes the controversial drilling technique known as
      hydraulic fracturing or "fracking".

      It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and
      chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the

      Widely used in some US states such as Pennsylvania and Colorado, it has
      been banned in Vermont as well as in France and Bulgaria because of
      potential air and water pollution.

      When the mayor of the eastern town of Barlad banned a rally against
      fracking last April, Laiu welcomed the protesters in his church.

      "The Church does not interfere in politics but if the health or life of
      only one of my fellow men is put in danger, it is my duty as a priest to
      intervene," he told AFP in an interview.

      Laiu, the top Orthodox priest in the Barlad region, has spent more than
      half of his life serving the villages. After the fall of communism in
      1989 he watched his parishioners fight for jobs and farmers try to make
      ends meet in the new capitalist economy.

      But since 2011, when Chevron obtained a 600,000-hectare (1.5
      million-acre) concession to look for shale gas, the region has been
      caught in a new battle about its future.

      Its promoters say shale gas extraction can create jobs, slash energy
      prices and provide a boost for the Barlad economy plagued by 10 percent
      unemployment, the highest rate in Romania.

      Others dismiss the shale frenzy as a temporary fad that could cause
      lasting damage to the environment and public health. Thanks to the
      globalised world, the Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland" and
      testimonies from American families about health problems they believe
      are linked to shale gas drilling have reached this far-flung corner of

      A 2012 study by Duke University in the US state of North Carolina showed
      that drinking water wells are at risk of contamination from fracking
      because of underground pathways.

      Father Laiu's main fears are over water. The area suffers from droughts,
      and fracking needs enormous amounts of water -- up to 20,000 cubic
      metres (706,000 cubic feet) -- per well, according to industry figures.

      The disposal of wastewater laced with corrosive salts, carcinogens and
      natural radioactive elements is another worry in an area where villagers
      grow their own fruit and vegetables and raise livestock.

      "I have three children and I want them to grow up in a safe environment
      with clean water," said Alina Secriaru, a nurse from Barlad.

      "Who will be willing to buy wheat, cheese or fruit" if millions of
      litres of toxic water are handled in the region?, Laiu asks.

      Chevron spokeswoman Sally Jones stressed to AFP that it "operates at the
      highest standards in terms of safety and environmental protection".

      The company "remains committed to being a responsible partner in Romania
      ... actively contributing to the local communities in which it
      operates", she added.

      But Father Laiu says the villagers are being ignored: "Parishioners
      found prospecting equipment sinking pipes into fields without prior
      notice. Then they saw the walls crack" on their buildings, he said.

      The priest's steadfast stance has impressed many.

      "He stayed with us when politicians who were on our side last year
      abandoned us," said notary and anti-fracking campaigner Lulu Finaru.

      Prime Minister Victor Ponta's centre-left coalition, including the
      Barlad mayor and local MPs, had initially slammed the previous
      government's decision to grant shale gas concessions.

      Ponta, in power since May 2012, even put a moratorium on drilling.

      But since that moratorium expired in December, the PM and rival
      President Traian Basescu have become leading European supporters of
      shale energy.

      A US study estimated the joint reserves for Romania, Bulgaria and
      Hungary at around 538 billion cubic metres, possibly making it the
      biggest deposit in eastern Europe.

      "Britain and Poland are looking to exploit shale gas. I do not think
      they would do something bad for the people," Barlad Mayor Constantin
      Constantinescu now argues.

      But Laiu remains determined to make the voice of the locals heard.

      "Years ago, my four-year old daughter died from a tumour. When I asked
      the doctor why, he answered: 'Only God knows, father. But we are too
      close to Chernobyl and that could be the cause'.

      "I cannot remain indifferent when the environment is concerned. Life is
      more valuable than any money they offer us," Laiu said.
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