BY EMMA AMAIZE, REGIONAL EDITOR, S-SOUTH
WHEN Vanguard visited Koluama I, Koluama 2, Temazau, Ebidouama and other communities in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, which were affected by the January 16, 2012 explosion of a gas rig, K.S Endeavour (Panama), near the North Apoi platform/field, west of the Funiwa field, on Wednesday, February 22, it was observed that neither the Chevron Nigeria Limited, CNL, operator of the rig nor the Federal Government, had undoubtedly evaluated the environmental, health and economic implications of the disaster on the people.
Though, the gas wellhead was still burning on February 22 when our reporters visited, that is 37 days after the explosion, the fire had considerably ebbed due to the well drilled by CNL to eat away the combustion.
Inspection of conflagration
From Olobia, a sub-community under Koluama II, about five nautical miles from the blazing rig, Vanguard was taken to the tip of the Atlantic Ocean by the vice chairman of Koluama II Council of Chiefs, Chief G. Ekuere-Goli and other leaders, where reporters inspected the conflagration.
For the workers of Fode Drilling Limited, a company contracted by CNL to drill gas at the location, approximately 10 kilometres, off the coast of Nigeria, it is nothing short of a miracle for any of them that survived the massive gas fire. Two of the workers, however, died in the explosion and their remains had not been found.
The chairman, Koluama I, Council of Chiefs, Chief Christian Mungha Bofa-Akpele told Vanguard that the West-African country of Gabon is very close and oftentimes, Koluama indigenes travel to Gabon to do business because Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State is farther from them.
Giving a brief history of the North Apoi and Funiwa oil fields, the traditional ruler of Koluama I, HRH N.E. Ogboin-Mienye said, “It is interesting to note that the first off-shore oil well in this area was struck within the same location, OPL 247, of the explosion by American Overseas Petroleum Limited, AMOSEAS, in 1963. This discovery was reported by the West African Pilot Newspaper of Saturday, September 21, 1963.
An operational licence on OPL 247 was originally granted to Texaco Overseas (Nigeria) Petroleum Company by the Federal Government of Nigeria on April 1, 1975 for the period of 20 years at the relevant Deeds Registry, where it was registered at the time”.
“This initial licence was for the purpose of constructing, maintaining and operating an oil pipeline and approved ancillary installations. This licence expired sometime in 1995 and has since been renewed. However, we do not have copies of the renewed lease for this licence”, he said, demanding that the copies of the renewed licence, which was transferred to Chevron Nigeria Limited after the merger of the two companies in the recent past was not made available to the community”, he asserted.“
Communities express anger over Petroleum Minister’s hasty visit
However, the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, visited Koluama II last month. She pledged the commitment of the Federal Government to provide lasting solution to the incidents of environmental pollution caused by exploration and production of oil and gas, especially in the Niger Delta region of the country.
But vice chairman of Koluama 2 Council of Chiefs, Chief Ekuere-Goli told Vanguard that the minister was in a hurry when she visited and did not even have time to undertake a tour of the community to see the impact of the explosion on the people.
Chief Bofa-Akpele was incensed that the minister did not bother to come to the community when Vanguard arrived at Koluama I.
A government source, however, said the Minister made an over-fly of eight host communities, spread across Southern Ijaw and Brass Local Government Areas, namely, Koluama 1, Koluma 11, Ekeni, Foropa, Fishtown, Ezetu 1, Ezetu 11 and Sanga.
Mrs. Alison-Madueke stated the readiness of the Petroleum Ministry to galvanise the International Oil Companies, IOCs, as well as the host communities, to ensure that the operating environment is made safe for all concerned in line with international best practice.
In her words: “We have done the aerial survey, we have seen, and also heard from the community leaders and youths; the next thing is to report back to the President and within the next one week to provide response to the community leaders”.
Jonathan gives marching orders on relief materials
President Jonathan came himself, Monday, February 27; five days after Vanguard visited the community. He promised to ensure that relief materials and other needs were sent to the people of Koluama community.
Like his minister earlier did, he reiterated the commitment of his administration to environmental management, promising to ensure that erosion and desertification would be checked from the Niger Delta to the Northern parts of the country.
The president also noted that the Federal Government has agencies that will ensure that relief materials were sent to Koluama people and called on the oil companies to follow suit. He promised the communities that the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, will facilitate deployment of more relief materials to them.
He commended them for showing restraint, tact and discipline in the way and manner they have channeled their grievances and assured that government would do its best to address their complaints.
President Jonathan also enjoined Chevron to provide more relief materials and other sundry relief items to the people. He urged oil companies operating in the country to undertake training of personnel, especially residents of communities within their operational base as part of its compensation and corporate responsibility to the people.
President Jonathan was accompanied to Koluama by Bayelsa State Governor, Mr Seriake Dickson, Ministers of Petroleum, Deziani Allison-Madueke, Environment, Hadiza Malaifia and Niger-Delta, Elder Godsday Orubebe.
Oil companies should preserve ecological system — Dickson
Bayelsa State Governor, Seriake Dickson said the state has been exposed to risk due to activities of oil companies operating within its communities and asked that the companies learn to respect their environment in order to ensure the preservation of the nation’s ecological system.
He further disclosed that his administration has set up legal and technical committees to harmonise assessment reports conducted.
Speaking on behalf of the communities, former Bayelsa State House of Assembly member, Honorable Ayaowei listed problems facing the people resulting from the gas explosion to include inability to continue with their fishing businesses, lack of portable drinking water, medical care and electricity, as well as lack of access roads to link the communities.
Chevron Managing Director, Andrew Fawthrop while regretting the incident, promised that the company will commence community and medical development works in the communities soon.
Our real fear — Koluama communities
The real distress of the people, which is the fear that the colossal blast that rocked the underpinnings of their homes could lead to their communities being washed away, has not been apprehended by government and the oil company.
In the words of His Royal Highness, N.E. Ogboin-Mienye, the Amananawei of Koluama II: “The massive explosions shook the foundations of houses in the community, Olobia, Foniweiama, Kiriseigha, Kulaiama, Tikpama, Abikeiwei, etc in Koluama clan.
The story that re-echoed in all the communities of Koluama, which Vanguard visited was the Shell D’ Archy explosion in 1953 during the course of seismic activities for oil and gas in the area. They said the ancient Koluama was wiped out as a result of that incident.
According to a community leader, “Koluama used to be one large clan before but because of the 1953 explosion, the clan went under water and that brought about separation of the different communities under it.
Besides the 1953 explosion, there was also a Funiwa (well 5) blow out on January 17, 1980. The Amananawei of Koluama II said, “It is very sad to mention that we suffered the same, if not a worst fate during the incident. The government and Texaco, which was operating the Funiwa oil field as at then, responded very late.
So, the entire Koluama clan is gripped with mortal fear of being wiped away as a result of the January 16 explosion, this time, a case of massive rig fire from Chevron, which took over from Texaco.
Day of incident in Koluama I — Chief Bofa-Akpele, Koluama II
There was a heavy rainfall on February 22, which caught up with the Vanguard team around Igbomotoru I. We had taken off at 8.30 am on that day from Swali market waterside and got to Koluama in the afternoon.
We were received by the community chairman, Chief Bofa-Akpele, who narrated that the people were jolted from their sleep between 4.00 am and 5.00 am by a loud explosion that shook their buildings in the community and neighbouring towns.
“We were frightened, many of us panicked, everybody ran helter-skelter, not knowing the cause of what happened. Later, we found out that it was a massive fire from the rig of our tenant, CNL, at where the company is working in North Apoi platform. As I speak to you now, the fire is still burning.
“And since that day, we have been having many problems. We are fishermen; our livelihood is threatened as a result of this explosion. We don’t see fish to kill any more; dead fishes are floating here and there on Koluama River. Our river empties in the Atlantic Ocean; you don’t fish in our river.
“Many of us have got strange sickness since the gas fire, some have lost their lives and there is no medical team, no treatment of any sort anywhere by Chevron, we are grounded.
“Some people who manage to catch fish at all are afraid to eat them because it is poisonous to us since over a month that our river was poisoned”, he asserted.
Chief Bofa-Akpele explained, “Koluama is a kingdom made up of many communities before the 1953 seismic operation in which dynamites that were used by an oil company washed the ancient Koluama. Where they call offshore now is where we use to have the ancient Koluama”.
“You can see our community, there is nothing to write home about, the Federal Government takes 40 per cent and the oil company takes 40 per cent, leaving us with nothing”, he said.
A community source who shed light on the 1953 tragedy said, “The estuary you see there is what was left of the ancient Koluama, it was washed away, it used to be one community, but now, you hear Koluama I and Koluama II. The little land there is less than 25 metres and that is our fear, the sea is encroaching on us because of seismic activities and our fear is that very soon, our villages will be washed away”.
“We have embarkment done by the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. The cottage hospital in the community was built by Texaco-Chevron, but it is not equipped, no staff and it is not functioning”, he added.
On the health challenges since the explosion, he said, “As at now, the air we are breathing now is choking, it is different, we know what we are feeling, we have been asking Chevron to come with medical assistance but they have not come, they only brought us small food to share.
Chief Bofa-Akpele gave the names of the two persons that died as a result of ailments purportedly connected to the explosion as Mrs. Napoleon and Madam F. Olale.
As at the day we visited, more than a month after the tragedy, he said, “Only few bags of rice, 50 kg bags of garri, few cartons of ice fish and chicken were brought to us as relief materials. At the moment, we want Chevron and government to bring us enough relief materials to sustain us, not what will not be enough for us to use as taste”.
Social amenities in Koluama 2
“We have been having it very rough”, he recounted, pointing out that in Koluama II, “Chevron provided us a generator plant before now but we don’t have money to buy diesel to power it and we don’t have water to drink. We get water to drink from dug up wells. We have a primary and secondary school that are not well furnished, no laboratories and no teachers’ quarters for the few teachers.
“Teachers are like luxury items here because they prefer to stay in urban areas where there is amenities of life than in a place where there is no light, no water and from Yenagoa to this place is about a three-hour journey”, he said.
Do women deliver in the hospital since it is not equipped? He said, “God is the One that is saving us, we have our local way of delivery and if you want to go to Yenagoa, somebody can even die before he gets there. Last year, there was a case in which one of my relations got burnt in a kerosene explosion, she died on the way and we had to bring her back for burial”.
On staffing of the cottage hospital, he quipped, “We only have a health officer there”.
Why we stormed Chevron office
The health officer, Mrs. Edi Epowoitei, who is the wife of the clan head told Vanguard, “Since the explosion occurred, we have not been able to do anything and because the Atlantic Ocean water flow into our river, we are now redundant, sitting down at home with no work, you know our occupation is fishing”.
“What they brought to us since the incident in January are some bags of rice, garri and few other things only. That was why we went to protest against Chevron in Warri. Our plan is that since they have stopped our means of livelihood, they should take the responsibility of feeding us.
“Now, ailments such as pneumonia, vomiting, stomach pains, acute asthma are prevalent in the community as a result of the polluted air. We can’t eat fish from our river any more. We now send people to Yenagoa to buy ice fish for us to cook, can you imagine, we that are fishermen and women. Fire is still burning in the place, they are yet to put it off, the emissions are affecting our breathing.
“About four or five days ago, somebody came from Port-Harcourt to this place, he came to build a house, but because of the gaseous emissions in the air, his nose was running blood, before then, we observed that most of our children were having such experience, we don’t know how long these things will continue, we require urgent help, there are radioactive substances everywhere”, she said.
She confirmed that there were no drugs in the health centre, adding, “We have applied for a doctor to be posted to us, but they did not give us doctor”.
Mrs. Epowoitei said the women of Koluama II rejected the one plate of garri and one plate of rice each that was shared to them as relief material because it was an insult.
NYSC members lend credence
Two National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, members, Ibama Johnson and Joseph and Popoola Oluwatusin, who Vanguard met in Koluama II said the effect of the rig fire was devastating on the people.
According to Ibama, “it is extremely affecting our health here, there is no drinking water, it affected the fishes, and we can’t even drink the rain water because of the fear of the content as a result of the explosion”.
Oluwatunsi, who has been in Koluama II for eight months said, “It is an unfortunate incident, it affected us in many ways. Fishes are dying in the river as a result of the effect of the gas fire, when the deputy governor came here, he saw how people were lying down on the sick bed in the hospital, the doctors that came from a Non Governmental Organisation were even afraid to attend to them, when you breathe in here, you are breathing poisonous gas”.
“We are surviving here for now by trying to avoid some food we suspect will not be good in our system. We avoid cooking soup since then because we don’t want to eat fish from the river here and develop one sickness later. Rather, we eat Indomie”, he said.
NB: The fire was put out on Sunday night