For weary Niger Delta residents, shocking oil pollution report offers little hope

A new report commissioned by the Bayelsa state government in Nigeria holds international oil companies like Shell, TotalEnergies, and ExxonMobil responsible for spilling at least 110,000 barrels of oil there over the past 50 years.
Researchers found alarming levels of toxic chemicals in soil, water, and in the air. Blood and tissue samples taken from residents found elevated levels of heavy metals including lead, nickel and cadmium.
The report calls for extensive cleanup and recovery efforts, as well as sweeping changes to oil industry regulations and the setup of a $12 billion fund for remediation, paid for by the oil companies.
Activists and residents say they’re largely skeptical of any meaningful changes arising from the report, including the prospect of compelling oil majors to pay into a remediation fund.

Earlier this month, a fisherman reported oil leaking from an old wellhead at Okpoama, in the southern part of Nigeria’s Bayelsa state. The Niger Delta suffers more than 200 oil spills every year, many of them far worse than this one, which elicited only a rote complaint from a local youth leader and a jaded call from environmental activists in the region for communities to be involved in a joint investigation.

A new report released today takes a comprehensive look at the cumulative effects of 50 years of oil pollution on the state’s people and environment: the findings are damning, but some locals told Mongabay they don’t expect much will change.

The May 8 spill took place in the Brass locality, near the ocean where the water in the creeks of the Niger Delta is brackish with seawater. The delta region is one of the world’s largest wetlands, and hosts Africa’s largest mangrove forests. Its people long prospered amid spectacular biodiversity.

But decades of oil production have severely damaged the swamp, forest and marine habitats of the region, threatening species such as the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis), the pygmy hippo (Choeropsis liberiensis heslopi) and the Niger Delta red colobus monkey (Piliocolobus epieni).

Nearly a fifth of Nigeria’s oil production is from Bayelsa, and Brass is at the heart of the web of poorly maintained infrastructure that brings oil and gas to the surface and transports it to terminals for export.

The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission’s report says oil companies have spilled at least 110,000 barrels of oil in Bayelsa over the past 50 years. Ninety percent of this toxic pollution came from facilities operated by just five international oil majors: Shell, Eni, Chevron, Total and ExxonMobil, the report says.

Commissioned by the state’s government, and chaired by the former archbishop of York, John Sentamu, the BSOEC’s researchers documented oil industry pollution at 17 key sites in the state, finding startlingly high levels of toxic chemicals in soil, surface and groundwater, and in the air, as well as in crops and animals eaten by residents. The commission’s researchers also found elevated levels of heavy metals including lead, nickel and cadmium in blood and tissue samples from 1,600 individuals across four localities in the state. Some cases showed metal levels up to six times higher than normal.

These findings are not news to people who have endured living amid environmental devastation for decades.

“We have been lamenting all these years about oil spills. Our livelihood has been negatively impacted in terms of damage to farmlands and poor crop yields and we are tired of these hazards,’’ said Ayibakuro Warder, a farmer who leads a women’s group in Ikarama community, one of the sites where the tests were conducted, not far from Bayelsa’s largest city, Yenagoa.

Bubaraye Dakolo, the traditional ruler of the nearby Ekpetiama Kingdom, told Mongabay it was as though the people were “stuck.”
“The report did not invent the diseases, it only revealed all that is happening,” he told Mongabay.

Dakolo said that before oil polluted the rivers, a fisherman on the Nun River could fill a 10-liter (2.6-gallon) bucket with fish in 10 minutes.

“This was like playtime snacks for the children,” he said. “That was before the devastating effects of oil. As I speak now, if you go to the river with your nets, and you go at 7 p.m. and stay all night and come back at 9 a.m., you will hardly have 3 kg [6.6 pounds] of fish.”

That fish, like crops from the fields and drinking water in Ikarama and elsewhere, is contaminated, the report finds.

Ebidimie Irole, a pediatrician at the federal medical center in Yenagoa, said she sees the effects of this in her practice.

“It is also important to note that more of our children are being born with heart and other abnormalities due mainly to the adverse health effect of these toxic materials linked to oil and gas exploration and production,” Irole told Mongabay.

“These heavy metals have also been shown to retard growth of children and also affects negatively the growing brain of the child as the first five years, especially the first two years, are very critical in the development of the child’s brain.”

The BSOEC’s careful documentation provides a basis for fresh recommendations for changes: The setting up of a recovery plan and an agency to clean up water and soil, reduce risks to people’s health, and restore pollution-blighted mangrove forests; changes to Nigerian legislation and regulation of the oil industry — including the state government exercising little-used powers over land-use licenses and rights of way for oil infrastructure, and helping to fund litigation by local communities.

The report also calls for the establishment of a $12 billion fund for remediation, funded by the oil companies that have profited from the destruction, and overseen jointly by state, national and international authorities as a guard against misuse.

Many Bayelsa residents and observers are skeptical of these proposals, beginning with the idea that transnational oil companies announcing record profits can be compelled to pay into a fund for recovery.

“It’s tragically naive or dishonest to portray the expectation that perpetrators of malfeasance and their partners, procurers and beneficiaries — from operating companies, pipeline vandals and bush refineries to federal regulators — will make good when our own gatekeepers are either sleeping on our communities’ rights or splurging on the chicken change thrown at them for pacification,” said Iniru Wills, an environmentalist and attorney with expertise on pollution litigation.

Noel Ikonikumo, head of the United Fishing Union of Sangana, said he also doubts the report will make much difference.

“Our cries over frequent oil spills that threaten our livelihoods have fallen on deaf ears. We have deep-seated doubts and are not looking forward to the report,” Ikonikumo told Mongabay.

Others are more positive. Dakolo said he welcomed the idea of a recovery fund, stressing that citizens must be able to monitor how it’s used. “The general public should be concerned about the money being released,” he said.

A senior Bayelsa state government official, who asked to remain anonymous as he didn’t have formal permission to speak, told Mongabay that while the governor who commissioned the study had since left office, the new administration is committed to implementing its recommendations.

In its official announcement of the release of the report, the Bayelsa government said the launch event will take place at the House of Lords in London to “further draw global attention to the devastating effects of oil pollution in Bayelsa and indeed the Niger Delta region.”

Should the commission’s recommendations be taken up, future spills would be swiftly detected by a stronger, better-funded National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), with resources to visit and assess the threat and take swift action to contain and clean it up. This emergency response team would perhaps be followed by workers from an agency put in place to restore damaged ecosystems, armed with growing experience on how best to remove or neutralize toxic chemicals from sediment and reestablish mangroves in which fish and crustaceans can thrive.

The owner of the broken infrastructure would wait anxiously to see if Bayelsa’s state government would judge this to be one breakdown too far and revoke its land-use permit; revised legislation, monitoring and enforcement by the national government might prompt oil companies to finally invest in upgrading aging equipment and addressing the many neglected wellheads no longer in use.

Ewebare Ese, a fisherman and pastor at Banga Camp, a settlement on the outskirts of Yenagoa, said the first outcome he wants to see is an end to pollution.

“Having determined the cause and source of the contamination, the government should hold whoever is found wanting culpable,” he said.

Ini Ekott

May 16, 2023

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