By Oscarline ONWUEMENYI
Even from the oil company-owned helicopter which circled over the village of Koluama nestling by the Atlantic Ocean, the desolation of the entire land was palpable. And from the air one could see what might appear like a miracle of Biblical proportions: a burning sea.
There on the far-flung ocean, by a collapsed Chevron oil rig, is the K.S. Endeavor (Panama) rig gas blow-out which continues to flame after more than a month of the accident which reportedly claimed two lives, a British and an Indian.
On the ground, the picture gets clearer. The hollow eyes and bloated bellies of the school children who lined up to welcome the dignitaries tell a story of a wretched people who continue to survive against natural and man-made odds, such as the pollution from the latest gas explosion which has adversely impacted the aquatic life and eco-system in the region.
As with many of such incidents in the region, the Chevron rig blow-out was hugely under-reported in the national press partly because of the inadequate resources of the media organizations – like most communities where the crude is mined in the Niger Delta, there are no roads leading to Koluama Kingdom – and a boat ride from the state capital Yenogoa costs about N7000, which is not surprising given that a litre of fuel within the capital goes for upwards of N350 per litre, against the N97 per litre sold in many other cities.
Government officials visiting the area ride in helicopters provided by oil companies, and are often in a hurry to get away from the scorching heat and swampy neglect.
But, this is not the first time the people of Koluama have suffered blatant neglect and deprivation by government and oil and gas companies operating within the Kingdom. The communities suffered a worse fate during the Funiwa (Well 5) blow-out on January 17, 1980.
The villagers who remembered the incident claim that much like the present incident, the government and Texaco which was operating the Funiwa oil field then responded very late. The consequence was severe pollution to the environment and poor remediation, the effects of which they still suffer till date.
According to the villagers, the latest explosion was heard from the K.S. Endeavor (Panama) Rig during the early hours of Monday, January 16, 2012. Fode Drilling Limited, a company contracted by Chevron Nigeria Limited was drilling gas at the North Apoi Field, west of the Funiwa Field, in Koluama clan about five nautical miles from the Koluama communities of Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. The explosion resulted in a huge gas fire and a massive spill. The fire is still burning.
From the Koluama River, the huge flames can be sighted deep in the Atlantic Ocean, and the gas is still burning, emitting dangerous gases and other toxic chemicals into the environment. The Koluama River directly empties into the Atlantic Ocean and as such the polluted water is carried into the Koluama River and creeks and other neighbouring communites in the coastline.
The villagers report that the massive explosions from the blow-out shook the foundations of the houses at Koluama 1, Koluama 2. Kalaweiama, Opuama, Tamazo, Kiriseighegbene, Abiakiawei, and Olobia among other communities in the Koluama clan.
“We were worried about this development because it was explosions in the course of seismic activities by Shell D’Archy while exploring for oil and gas in this same area that led to the wiping away of the Ancient Koluama in 1953,” a village leader noted.
The people of Koluama clan have even bigger worries from the encroaching ocean. According to them, in the 1970s and the early 1980s, it took about an hour’s walk from the bank of the river at Koluama to the sea shore. However, this entire land has been eaten up by the sea.
They demand protection from the Federal government from the rampaging sea. “We plead with the Federal Government to come to our aid by carrying out a shore protection and embankment project to stop the menace of the ravaging sea,” said a former Commissioner representing the area.
He notes that despite the huge revenues the Federal and Bayelsa state governments are deriving from the resources located in the area, “there is no tangible government presence in Koluama.”
Koluama vs Chevron
The relationship between Koluama communities and Chevron has been described as one of master and slave: Chevron operates as master and the communities as slaves. “Chevron has not done any reasonable community development in our communities since it took over the Funiwa and North Apoi Oil fields from Texaco (TOPCON),” said Chief Tiwei Leghemo, another community leader.
He points out that Chevron has not employed any member of the communities since its merger with Texaco in 2001. According to him the last time any member of the communities was employed was twelve years ago.
“Instead, Chevron has decided to terminate the employments of three out of the eight employees from our communities. Many of our youths have remained unemployed. Chevron has not been treating our people as humans,” he adds.
Chief Leghemo says his people do not ask for much than the basic necessities like good, portable water, electricity, schools, and functional health facilities. Add the odd employment or two for their sometimes volatile youth. He points out that the only standard cottage hospital in Koluama 1 was built by Texaco in the early 1990s, while the structure for the health centre in Koluama 2 is yet to be completed.
However, the cottage hospital which was inherited by Chevron is not equipped neither has it any medical personnel except for a community extension health officer.
“The communities lack portable drinking water and still drink water from locally dug wells and as such are prone to water-borne diseases. This situation may have been worsened with the recent rig blow-out, and the efforts undertaken by the company to contain the possible spillage, including use of chemicals which has been harmful to the aquatic life in the area.
Remember that fishing is all we know how to do in these parts, and now they fish are no longer there; where you catch them, you can’t eat them because they smell,” he says.
Through all that has happened to them, the people of Koluama appear to have resigned to their fate. And as captured by the newly elected Governor of Bayelsa State, Mr. Seriaki Dickson, the people are all too familiar with occurrences such as the gas explosion and the resultant oil spill.
According to him, “This sort of thing (explosion) has happened over time in this area, and the people in these parts have grown used to this kind of living. This is part of the sacrifice our people have to endure to produce the energy that sustains the national economy.
Our job as a government is to ensure that companies behind such acts are compelled to do the right thing, even as we work to ameliorate the negative effects of such incidences.”