Thursday, February 23, 2012

Despoliation of Nigerian Environment by Oil Companies

I did my National Youth Service at Delta State during which I visited the Warri Refinery to see some fellow Corp members. During my visit, as soon as I got close to the vicinity of the refinery, I noticed a palpable change in the air I breathe. It was heavy and unnatural. This was attributed to the unabating gas flaring in the environment. In Nigeria, it has been impossible to stop oil companies from gas flaring due to government indulgence. Despite its negative health implication, it would seem that gas flaring is the least of the many worries of Nigerian government. What with the frequent oil spills in many of the Niger Delta areas? The latest of such occurred on January 16, 2012 when Chevron’s KS Endeavor exploration oil rig in the Funiwa field exploded. The affected areas include Kolo Ama I and II, Akasa, Sanagana, Fish Town, Fropa, Ekeni, Ezetu and Lobia - all in Bayelsa State, and with a combined population of some 500,000.

Despite the barking of the Senate Committees on Environment and Petroleum as well as the intervention of the Nigerian National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDREA) the fire still rages more than four weeks after it started. According to a February 10, 2012 press statement issued in Warri by the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Igwe Napoleon, the Bayelsa State branch secretary of the Nigeria Red Cross (NRC) was quoted as saying that his organization and the Bayelsa Ministry of Health are asking for seven million naira [US$44,000] to enable them make an initial dispatch of urgently needed relief items like water to the affected people and also carry out a damage impact assessment. Information credited to the state government said there had been a delay in the release of the money requested by the Red Cross due to political bickering and a sudden change in the state’s executive council. Pity!

I have watched the agony of these communities in the footages shown by African Independent Television (AIT) on its Big Story. The explosion has caused untold hardship on the people of the affected communities including destroying their ecosystem, denying them safe drinking water, causing them sicknesses of various kinds, among many other sordid impacts. In December 2011, Shell Bonga Oil Field leaked an estimated 1.7 million gallons of crude into the Nigerian ocean. SkyTruth, a nonprofit group in Virginia, USA estimates that the oil spill covers about 350 square miles. This debacle was said to have occurred when there was a break in transfer line during a routine transmission from the Bonga oil field to a tanker. 13 coastal villages were alleged to have been severely affected by that oil spill.

On August 4, 2011, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) submitted the report of its Ogoniland Oil Assessment to President Goodluck Jonathan. Six months after, nothing has been done to implement the well-researched study. The findings of the assessment team are earth-shaking and worth considering. According to UNEP, pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have supposed. Over a 14-month period, the UNEP team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings. Detailed soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites, which ranged in size from 1,300 square meters (Barabeedom-K.dere, Gokana local government area (LGA) to 79 hectares (Ajeokpori-Akpajo, Eleme LGA). Altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

Some of the key findings of the assessment team include: Some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground and action to protect human health and reduce the risks to affected communities should occur without delay; In at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened; In one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, in western Ogoniland, families are drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen-at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines; Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate, the Shell Petroleum Development Company's own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues; The impact of oil on mangrove vegetation has been disastrous; When an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult; while the impact of individual contaminated land sites tends to be localized, air pollution related to oil industry operations is all pervasive and affecting the quality of life of close to one million people; Artisanal refining (a practice whereby crude oil illegally obtained from oil industry operations is refined in primitive stills), is endangering lives and ultimately causing pockets of environmental devastation in Ogoniland and neighbouring areas.

The expert assessors made the following propositions: Through a combination of approaches, individual contaminated land areas in Ogoniland can be cleaned up within five years, while the restoration of heavily-impacted mangrove stands and swamplands will take up to 30 years. However, all sources of ongoing contamination must be brought to an end before the clean-up of the creeks, sediments and mangroves can begin. The report recommends establishing three new institutions in Nigeria to support a comprehensive environmental restoration exercise. These are: Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority to oversee implementation of the study. The Authority's activities should be funded by an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland, to be set up with an initial capital injection of US$1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government, to cover the first five years of the clean-up project. An Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre, to be built in Ogoniland and supported by potentially hundreds of mini treatment centres, to treat contaminated soil and provide hundreds of job opportunities. The report recommends creating a Centre of Excellence in Environmental Restoration in Ogoniland to promote learning and benefit other communities impacted by oil contamination in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the world. Lastly, reforms of environmental government regulation, monitoring and enforcement, and improved practices by the oil industry were also recommended.

It behooves Nigerian government to muster the political will to implement this UNEP report. Government must also take stringent measures against oil explorers in Nigeria who have been ‘playing kite’ with the lives of our people through their unprofessional operations in our oil fields. We must save our environment by ensuring that act of negligence by oil companies are no longer treated with kid’s glove. These frequent oil spillages further underscore the imperative of passage of Petroleum Industry Bill that has been before the National Assembly for more than three years. When there is oil spill, it is not only the environment that suffers, there are huge human casualties and economic loses, there is therefore the urgent need for the people in the communities that have been affected by oil spill to be taken care of medically, materially and financially. This is what can bring lasting solution to the phenomenon of militancy in the Niger Delta region.