•50 settlements cry out

*A scene from Aghoro Kingdom

By Samuel Oyadongha, Yenagoa

THE rancid stench of spilled crude oil was the ugly reminder of a creek that once bubbled with fishing activities.  All around the banks were signs of oil industry- induced pollution as the grasses and other vegetation bear the signs clearly, including fishing nets and timber. The impacted creek told a saga of heavy volume of crude oil spewed into the environment.

Besides the crude oil stained grasses, other vegetation and materials at the banks, the surface of the body of the water (on the creek) displayed the colours associated with crude oil.

Although the recovery of the spilled crude into the environment is on-going, the odour could still be smelled as the temperature rises during the day due to the swamp and the nature of the terrain.

This has been the sad tale of Aghoro Kingdom, a sprawling coastal settlement on the Atlantic fringe in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State whose natives are predominantly fishermen and farmers.

Sunday Vanguard gathered that this year alone, the natives have had to contend with two separate oil spills.

Since the rustic settlement was rocked by a devastating oil spill from the 24-inch Trans-Ramos pipeline owned by oil giant, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), on May 17, 2018, the people and the community have become like the proverbial orphan.

Their socio-economic condition has worsened and drinking polluted water has become a second nature.

Fishing, the main source of livelihood of the natives, Sunday Vanguard investigation revealed, has not only been crippled but the once alluring Otobo-Iba creek is also polluted with the result that they now rely on sachet water brought from Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, and the neigbouring Warri in Delta State.

Disturbed by impact of the May 17 spill, the 24-member Bayelsa State House of Assembly had speedily passed a resolution, urging the SPDC to send relief materials to affected communities and also commence immediate payment of compensation to victims. The lawmakers also called on the oil giant to put in motion the machinery that will stop further spread of spilled crude oil to other areas.

However, it was learned that before the spill could be contained, it had impacted some communities in Delta State, polluting the environment and rivers and killing fishes and other aquatic lives.

The cause of the spill is yet to be officially ascertained as relevant bodies were yet to conclude the Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) on the impacted sites.

*Dead aquatic life

Fishing activities grounded

Meanwhile, the troubled natives painted a bleak picture.

Lamenting the adverse effect of the spillage, Secretary of the Community Development Committee, CDC, of Aghoro II, Justin Gbagbiri, said: “This oil spill happened on May 17. The river is one of our major sources of drinking water. But since this spillage occurred, we have not been able to use the river, and the spill has affected most of our activities. Fishing, which is our major occupation, has been adversely affected; as we cannot go to the river again to fish.

“Our children now cough. Some have eye and skin problems; in fact, there are different kinds of illnesses in town. But the situation seems a bit better now. When it first happened, you could not breathe well because of the gas that spewed into the air.”

Also an indigene of the area, simply identified as Ebi, said: “It has been a trying moment for us. Some of our people have been experiencing health challenges including eye, nose, stomach upset and throat irritation. We can no longer go fishing because of the polluted creek. As I speak, I have huge debt to pay as I borrowed money to buy the fishing net I had planned to use this season. Crude oil, which should have been a blessing to us as in civilised climes, has turned out to be a pain. How do I cater for my family now? I have bills to settle and other needs to meet but I am handicapped.”

Appeal to SPDC

On his part, Zide Sunday, another native, said that though Shell had sent relief materials to the area, “we don’t have water to drink and bathe. Our water has been polluted. Recovery work is on-going but we are calling on Shell to send water and also their medical team to the area.”

A mother of three, Madam Ebiere, said: “We are mostly into fishing and it is the proceeds from our catch that we use to send our children to school. If you are familiar with the Delta terrain, you will know that we don’t do much farming here because of our mangrove surrounding.

“Sadly, fishing, which we depend on for a living, has been grounded. How do we survive this condition? Frozen fish that comes from Warri in neighbouring Delta State is very expensive because of the high cost of transportation. Though some relief materials were recently sent to the community, I am appealing to the company, state and federal governments to come to our aid.”

A former commissioner from Bayelsa West, Hon. Augustine Lugbenwei, expressed sadness over the development and called on Shell to do the needful and ameliorate the plight of the natives.

Lugbenwei said: “Shell should provide our people with potable water and medicals. Their water has been polluted. And our people have no drinking water. What will it cost the company to send water to our people just as it supplied bottle water to its personnel in the area?”

He lauded the efforts of the member representing the Sagbama-Ekeremor federal constituency, Hon. Fred Agbedi, who, according to him, has been to the area on three occasions and working round the clock to draw attention to the plight of the people.

Sunday Vanguard learned that the wife of the state governor, Dr (Mrs) Rachel Dickson, who is from the area, also sent relief materials to her people to mitigate their suffering.

Lamenting the sad turn of event in the area, Oil and Gas Producing Areas Enlightenment and Empowerment Initiative (OGPAEEI) said about 10,000 fishing nets, sources of water and farmland with crops were adversely impacted and damaged.

Spokesman for the group, Dr. Anapunere Awoli, representing the President of the group, Mr. Jackson Igbabiri, said, “From the assessment we conducted on the incident, we found out that about 10,000 fishing nets, over 50 fishing settlements, farmlands, including coconut farms, plantain and water yam farms were impacted by the spill.

“We are calling on SPDC to urgently provide alternative sources of water like borehole for the people; the people are also in dire need of medical aid and food items; the situation can lead to public health challenges if not taken care of.”

The group commended state government officials for their visit to the affected communities, describing the gesture as encouraging and an indication of the state government sensitive to the plight of victims.

The leader of Famous-Ama, one of the affected communities in Aghoro, Enimikem Famous, described the incident as “unfortunate” and urged the Federal Government, Shell and well-meaning Nigerians to come to their aid by providing potable water and medical items for victims.

Describing the adverse effects on human health worrisome, he said, “We have suffered too much of constant oil spills; our people have suffered from unexpected illnesses such as cholera, severe cough and infertility caused by the type of water we consume.”

Impediment to movement

A source, who spoke anonymously, told Sunday Vanguard that exhumed pipelines were hampering activities in the area as residents could no longer transport goods and services.

“The Joint investigation Visit (JIV) by the SPDC on the spillage has commenced, but some exhumed pipelines have blocked the surface of our water which is the only route to our market and farmlands. Things are very difficult now because we have no access to the farms. We urged Shell to expedite action on recovery and cleaning of the spill so as give unfettered access on our water,” the source said.

Integrity test

A Bayelsa State government delegation, led by the deputy governor, Rear Admiral Gboribiogha John-Jonah (ret.), which visited the area, was disturbed by the havoc wreaked on the environment and called on Shell to conduct integrity test on its pipelines in the Niger Delta to avert a recurrence.

John-Jonah decried what he described as the frequency of oil spillages from the company operations, as well as the fact that a good number of its pipes were laid a long time ago and may have suffered corrosion.

He berated SPDC for the delay in carrying out remediation activities and provision of relief materials.

While noting the usual Joint Investigation that would be carried out to ascertain the cause of the spillage, the deputy governor advised SPDC to ensure that all the relevant parties are involved in the exercise, stressing that it should be done in accordance with international standards.

The deputy governor also commended the people of Aghoro for their patience and peaceful disposition, assuring that, the state government will do the needful.

“You can see the pollution even after the very long time, the amount of the sludge, the thickness of oil spill that were found there. When you are exploiting the resources and you don’t think of what happened to human beings, the impact on lives cannot be assessed and may be after some years.

“We are breathing fumes of crude oil. It is a very devastating incident; I want Shell to redouble its efforts. We will submit our report to government so that we can have coordinated efforts to ensure that this type of thing is avoided in our environment,” he said.

Also, the member representing Sagbama-Ekeremor federal constituency in the House of Representatives, an indigene of Aghoro, stated that the community had suffered from two oil spillages in recent times, with the first one occurring in April, this year at Odimodi Area in Delta State, which extended to Aghoro and the second on May 17, 2018, at Aghoro axis, all from the SPDC River Ramos pipeline.

According to him, the two spillages have devastating effects on Aghoro and other surrounding communities, resulting to massive destruction of the aquatic life, which is their major source of livelihood.

He, therefore, called on the Federal Government and SPDC to take quick actions to alleviate the plight of the people. “We expect Shell and the Federal Government and its partners to quicken action. I expect that medical team should have been on ground long before now dealing with health issues because lives are involved, environment is involved and people need to have their source of livelihood restored”, the lawmaker said.

But a member of staff of the company at one of the sites, Engr. Charles Ebulu, assured that SPDC was doing all that was necessary to contain further spread of the spilled crude and pleaded for understanding from all stakeholders.

Speaking on the incident, the Amananaowei of Aghoro, His Royal Highness, Ibamua Ojukonsin, lamented that it took SPDC two weeks to respond after the incident was reported, adding that the community was yet to receive medical supplies from the company.

He decried the situation whereby SPDC was eager to effect repairs on the pipeline in order to resume production while nothing had been done for the impacted communities.

Team to impacted  area underway

But SPDC says a Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) to Aghoro community was underway to investigate the cause of the oil leak in the area, adding that relief materials had been sent there.

Mr. Bamidele Odugbesan, Media Relations Manager, SPDC, in a telephone interview, said the oil firm had convened a Joint Investigation Team to visit the area.

He, however, regretted that rains and swampy nature of the area were hampering the spill response operations.

On the claim of delayed response to the spill, which was first reported in May, Odugbesan said that the allegation was baseless, adding that Shell was doing everything possible to address the situation.

“We have been working round-the-clock since the leak occurred and, as we speak, the JIV is underway but it is not yet concluded because of the swampy nature of the terrain, coupled with problem of rains and high tide”, he said

“The JIV is not a one-man show. The JIV team, comprising SPDC officials, regulators, community representatives and Bayelsa State Ministry of Environment officials, must visit the leak spots before arriving at a conclusion.”

But, according to Agbedi, who represents the area in the House of Reps, “I have been speaking with Shell officers, including the GMD, and I am shocked to hear that, even as at today, we are still expecting medical attention. It’s not fair, it is not good enough. You don’t treat a peaceful people that way. You don’t treat your host community that way”.

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