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“We are hungry”: oil spill victims seek justice

March 11, 2022
tags:#Niger-Delta, #Royal Dutch Shell, #Nigeria, #oil spill, #fishing
by:Ekpali Saint
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, and since it discovered oil in the Niger Delta in the 1956, people in the region have continued to endure both social and environmental degradation, mostly due to oil spills from refineries. Despite governmental inaction and corporate negligence, local communities continue to seek justice.

Until November last year, Worikuma Ivory never imagined there will be a time when he will be unable to go fishing, which has been his main source of livelihood for over 26 years. Ivory resides in a fishing settlement near the Santa Barbara River in the Nembe local government area of Nigeria’s state of Bayelsa. 

That month, the Santa Barbara River and farmlands of the area were polluted as a result of an oil spill incident that occurred at Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29 Wellhead 1 platform operated by Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company (AEEPCO). The blowout that occurred at OML 29 Wellhead spread to communities, fishing, and farm settlements.

"Things have been so difficult since November when the oil spill occurred," Ivory told FairPlanet. "Usually, I go fishing any time of the day, but it is impossible to do that now because the oil spill affected the river and my fishing gears."

Oil spill disasters constitute one of the major sources of pollution of marine ecosystems. The world has thus far experienced numerous oil spills catastrophes, with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico considered to be the largest oil spill in the petroleum industry’s history. 

Oil spills are, unfortunately, a recurring phenomenon in Nigeria. In 2021, for instance, Nigeria lost 23,773 barrels (3.8 million litres) of crude oil in 331 oil spill incidents. This represents a 22 percent rise in frequency when compared to the 18,563 barrels (three million litres) recorded in 2020 following 384 incidents.

However, the recent wellhead blowout in Nembe, has been described as the "biggest oil spill disaster" in the history of oil and gas exploration and exploitation in Nigeria. The spill, which experts adjudged to be a "special type" as it involved 80 percent gas and 20 percent oil, caused severe environmental damage with more than a hundred thousand barrels of oil spilled.

Alagoa Morris, Project Officer and Head, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) at Niger Delta Resource Centre in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa state capital, explained that there are three major reasons for oil spillage in oil producing states in Nigeria: operational failure, equipment failure and third party interference or sabotage.

While operational failure and equipment failure could lead to oil spill due mainly to oil companies' negligence or mistakes, sabotage could lead to spillage mostly when a third party damages the pipeline to steal and channel oil to a local refinery.

"[But] it is not enough to say the oil spill is as a result of third party interference," Morris said, adding that "it is the responsibility of the oil company to protect their facilities." 

Aiteo acquired the OML 29 Well 1 platform that spilled crude oil into the Santa Barbara River in 2015 following divestment by Shell, a multinational oil and gas company. Currently, Aiteo Group holds a huge stake in Nigeria’s oil and gas sector as the highest oil-producing indigenous company, with 51 percent of its equity owned by the Nigerian government.

“Inconclusive” JIV report

In the event of an oil spill, a joint investigation visit (JIV) - often convened by the oil company - is usually conducted at the spillage site. "The joint investigation visit by all [relevant] stakeholders [is] to determine not only the cause of the spill but also the scope of spread of the pollutant and access damage or affected areas or properties outside the company’s right of way," Morris explained.

As expected, a JIV was conducted after the Nembe oil spill and representatives were drawn from the oil firm (Aiteo), affected communities, state ministry of environment and regulatory agencies - National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) and the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC).

But the joint investigative team did not reach a consensus as there were contradicting positions after the JIV was conducted, mainly because the JIV report attributed the oil spill to sabotage. While the representatives of NOSDRA, NUPRC and Aiteo traced the leak to sabotage, representatives of Bayelsa State Ministry of Environment, Nembe local government area and the host community traced the cause of the spillage to be a result of Aiteo’s equipment and maintenance. Citing several reasons, the Bayelsa state government rejected the JIV report and insisted that the Nembe well head blowout was due to equipment and maintenance failure.

Meanwhile, an investigation carried out by Premium Times revealed "how Aiteo and Nigerian regulators misreported [the] Nembe oil spill," which caused severe environmental damage and forced those affected by the spillage to contend with poverty due to their inability to return to fishing and farming activities.

"It is really sad that the people and community hosting a company will suffer this way and at the end they say it is third party interference," Ivory lamented. 

Devastating impact

Since the 1970s, oil from the Niger Delta has been the main source of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and revenue, as oil accounts for 70 percent of the Nigerian government's earnings and 90 percent of its foreign exchange. Despite this, the oil-rich Niger Delta region has continued to suffer environmental degradation, including from oil spills. 

The oil spill that occurred in Nembe affected the economic life of its people; and before the OML 29 blowout was "finally" staunched on 8 December, following 38 days of continuous spillage to several communities, the creek and the environment were already contaminated by crude oil.

"Crude oil contains a lot of toxic elements that are inimical to the environment. Whenever there is an oil spill, it affects vegetation, kills all plants and aquatic lives," Morris said, stressing that "this situation often denies fisher folks - those whose means of livelihood depend on that environment - their fishing." 

Among the oil spill's environmental impacts was the decimation of economic trees and crops. The oil spill also resulted in a loss of fishing rights and gears of community members.

"About 40 people in my community were affected," says Ivory, adding that combined with members of other fishing communities the number of those affected goes up to 60.

"I can’t find my people again," Ivory, who is also the paramount ruler of Worikuma-Kiri, in Nembe, said. "Many of them have moved somewhere else for a better life."

As a farmer, Ivory said the spill also affected his farmland. "Besides not being able to go for fishing, I can’t go to my farmland where I have banga tree, coconut, plantain, banana and other cash crops," he said. "The truth is, in the 20 years to come, I can’t grow anything on the soil again because of the amount of damage. We are hungry [because] food is now difficult to get."

The future of crops cultivation in the area hangs in the balance: "unless there is proper clean-up and remediation of the land, that place will remain unproductive," Morris noted.

While proper cleanup activities remain one of the major ways to restore natural resources in the environment, they can never remove 100 percent of the oil spilled, which means people will continue to endure its adverse affect on the environment.

Meanwhile, the oil company provided the affected communities with relief materials. "Aiteo brought relief materials twice, but did not go round," says Ivory.

“Aiteo should be prosecuted”

A coalition of Civil Society Organisations in Nigeria has been working towards ensuring environmental justice is served to the impacted communities. These organisations, including Stakeholders Democracy Network (SDN), Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), pushed for proper compensation to those affected and also offered recommendations after visiting the spill site and affected communities. 

"In terms of solutions, one of the things that the joint CSOs basically recommended[...] was for the oil company to take responsibility in terms of providing immediate relief materials to communities affected," Joseph Ekiye, SDN’s assistant programme manager, told FairPlanet, adding that the company should provide "compensation and proper remediation of the impacted community."

However, Chima Williams, the executive director of ERA/FoEN, said that the "negligence" of Aiteo and regulatory agencies caused the affects of the oil spill to linger for long. He adds that if the affected communities are ready to prosecute the oil company, ERA will be willing to represent them.

"Aiteo should be prosecuted and the regulatory authorities for their negligence in addressing and arresting the situation that made it linger for more than 30 days from the time the spill started and was discovered by both the regulatory authorities and Aiteo management," said Williams. "They should be prosecuted for negligent conduct because they failed to meet international practice of stopping such magnitude of spill." 

But Williams said the challenge is that his organisation can’t push for the prosecution without victims coming to state the claims. 

"My organisation cannot prosecute Aiteo in the absence of the victims. We do not work alone. We work with victims because our [work] is to protect our citizens, protect our environment and protect source of livelihood," he said. "In terms of litigation, those directly impacted must make the claim before we can now represent them [and] give them our knowledge and assistance."

As for Ivory, he hopes the Nigerian government will intervene to ensure justice is served to those affected.

"I have children and a wife. I know what it means," the father-of six said. "I will appreciate it if the federal government intervenes because there’s nothing left for us."

Image by Milieudefensie

Article written by:
Ekpali Saint
Embed from Getty Images
The recent wellhead blowout in Nembe has been described as the "biggest oil spill disaster" in the history of oil and gas exploration and exploitation in Nigeria.
© PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
A fisherman holds a fishing net on the crude oil polluted shoreline in Nigeria. In 2021 Nigeria lost 23,773 barrels (3.8 million litres) of crude oil in 331 oil spill incidents.
© George Osodi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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