Venezuela's sinking town

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Massive oil extraction is literally reshaping the earth. The World's Marina Giovannelli has the story of a small town in Venezuela that's literally sinking after a long history of oil extraction.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Engineers working to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico got their box today. It's a massive 100 ton box which officials plan to lower over the blown well in an effort to contain the gusher. It'll be several days before we know if the plan works. Extracting oil from the earth is clearly a messy business. In some cases, it literally scars the land. The World's Marina Giovannelli found an example of that in Venezuela.

MARINA GIOVANNELLI: The area around Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela is one of the most active oil extraction regions in the world. Rusting oil derricks seem to be everywhere, both on land and in the lake. People have been tapping the oil here for decades. Unlike the deposits in the Gulf of Mexico, which are 18,000 feet below the sea floor, Maracaibo's deposits are a mere 3,000 feet below the surface. And draining these shallow deposits has left the town of Lagunillas literally sinking. Professor Martin Essenfeld of the University of Zulia says the problem is one of the most extreme in the world. The oil sits below soft, sandy earth. Draining the deposits has caused the land to sink more than 25 feet below sea level in some places. But the level of the lake has stayed the same and this, says Essenfeld, is a serious threat to nearby residents.

INTERPRETER: If you're going to build in a zone that is sinking, and is sinking below sea level and you don't build a dike there, the water is going to seep in.

GIOVANNELLI: A stout, earthen dike is the only thing keeping the largest lake in South America from completely flooding Lagunillas. The dike is 25 miles long and 40 years old. It's also sinking and unnervingly close to a seismically active fault. If you stand on the dike, the problem is obvious. On one side the lake splashes right up to the edge of the dike. On the other side, a downhill slope stretches far below the level of the water. Betty Mercedes works at a hair salon about a half a mile away and 25 feet below sea level. She half jokes about the danger she faces daily. Her customer Tibisaime Medina is waiting to get her hair dyed. She says residents of the sinking town are always thinking about the threat of a failing dike and devastating floods.

INTERPRETER: We have one eye open and one closed because if something were to happen, there would be no time for anything. This is one of the most dangerous places, the most affected, the closest to the lake.

GIOVANNELLI: Venezuela's state owned oil company, PDVSA, currently manages oil extraction in the region. It's also responsible for maintaining the dike. The threat of flooding prompted PDVSA to run evacuation drills. Betty Mercedes says that's where she learned what to do if the dike were to fail.

INTERPRETER: When there was a drill they would sound the alarm and everyone would run to the dike because it was the highest ground.

GIOVANNELLI: But it's been six years since the last evacuation drill. PDVSA says it's planning to restart the drills in the coming years. The company is also in the process of slowly relocating residents away from the sinking towns. Estimates vary, but there are between five and thirty thousand people waiting to be relocated. Betty Mercedes is one of those. Her mother says the story of the shifting ground is etched into the walls of their home. She points to a crack in the wall big enough for a notebook to fit through. All around there's evidence that the house is slowly breaking apart as it sinks into the earth and Mercedes and her mother say every time it rains the place reeks of oil. For The World, I'm Marina Giovannelli, Lagunillas, Venezuela.