By Samuel Oyadongha
For people who are predominantly anglers and whose existence revolves around the marine environment, November 2021 is the month they will not forget in a hurry as they are left to ponder how to pick up the pieces of their lives.
This is because their thriving trade has been rudely halted by massive spills from one of the many wells clustered along the maze of creeks in the once enthralling swathe of mangrove but now choked with offensive smell of crude and contaminated air.
Security has since been reinforced in the area ostensibly to prevent any awkward situation in the heavily polluted enclave.
Large volumes of crude are escaping into the creeks, swamps, farmlands and the Santa Barbara River from a well in the Oil Mining Licence 29 Southwest field in Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State operated by an indigenous firm, Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company (AEEPCO).
The facility, located at Worikuma-kiri, off Opu-Nembe (Bassambiri), has left the people in quandary.
The oil well blowout, according to the operator, occurred on November 5, but locals claimed the ruptured was noticed four days earlier, precisely on November 1 and has continued unabated.
Though the company has activated an extensive spillage containment response as witnessed in the area as well as distributing relief materials to the affected communities, the people said they are starving and called on the federal and state governments to come to their aid to assuage their sufferings in the wake of the cessation of their means of livelihood.
The worst impacted are Worikuma-Kiri, Sand Sand village, Sunny-Kiri I & II, Arow-Kiri, Adamata Kiri and other fishing settlements as thick yellowish substances suspected to be crude oil could be seen floating along the river into the Atlantic Ocean, destroying the aquatic and marine life in the area.
Stakeholders have described the raging spill as massive and devastating like the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster and the 2012 Chevron KS Endeavour catastrophe that rocked Koluama on the Atlantic of Bayelsa.
According to the locals, the offensive stench from the escaping crude mixed with gas is becoming unbearable.
Economic activities crippled
Fishermen and several communities affected by the spill have continued to express anguish over what they described as cessation of their economic livelihood lamenting that the creeks which are also a source of drinking water, cooking and washing, have been polluted. The landlord of Worikuma-Kiri, host to the troubled wellhead, Chief, Worikuma Ivory- Pegi elect, said the crude oil and gas discharge has destroyed his farm and land.
Also, the Vice President of Opu Nembe Youths, Mr Degi Nimibofa, expressed worry that the spill will have adverse health consequences on the people.
An indigene, simply identified as Tonye, said, “We cannot fish and it’s even riskier to embark on the fishing expedition because of the polluted water and charged atmosphere. We are the worst hit since our existence revolves around the water. The stench from the river is horrible.”
Helen Mark, a resident of Sunny-Kiri, one of the impacted settlements, said: “We have been denied our means of livelihood as we no longer catch fish. We don’t even have fish to cook again, we are starving. From what we are seeing, we might be deprived of fish in the river for a very long time to come.”
Also speaking, an expectant mother, Esther Marcus, noted in frustration, “I will give birth soon and I am yet to buy my baby things complete.
“Now this crude oil on the river has dashed my hope. I was relying on to get money to buy baby things and also take care of my children school fees from fishing but this is not possible at present, we are really suffering.”
Another resident, Erekeduomene Loveday, said life has been difficult for them in the last three weeks.
“We use to set traps (itolyai or ibinga) mainly for crayfish even in front of this waterfront and other places in our environment but things are no longer the same; the crude has destroyed our fishing gears and denied us our means of livelihood”, Loveday said.
“Since I have been in this place, I have not experienced such magnitude of pollution; it is everywhere in our environment. The water has spread the crude oil everywhere.
“The crayfish are all dying. The ibinga (tying of leaves together to attract crayfish) that we used to set for crayfish are all soiled with crude oil and so, there is no way to get crayfish now.”
Appeal for assistance
The locals unanimously called for federal and state government’s assistance to cushion the hardship confronting them saying the relief materials should be brought directly to them in the fishing settlement; as they are the main victims staying away from the main town.
Head of the Bayelsa Field Office of the Environmental Rights Action, Mr Alagoa Morris, noted with sadness that apart from the health hazards from the spills, the residents’ sources of livelihood had been lost, calling on the company to quickly tame the spill.
Although he lauded the booms being set by the oil firm to contain further spread of crude into the environment, he nonetheless added that it appears the pressure was much and the booms cannot do the work properly.
The National Vice President II of the Ijaw National Congress, INC, Alabo Nengi James, submitted that the ecosystem had been adversely impacted as a result of the incident and called on the government to declare it a National Disaster.
In a reaction, spokesman for the Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company (AEEPCO), Operator of the Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29, Mr Ndiana Matthew, said the oil firm was containing the spill while distributing relief materials to the impacted communities.
Sunday Vanguard was reliably informed that three barges of 1,000 barrels capacity of recovered crude oil had been evacuated from the boomed area and the fourth one being loaded.
Also, it was reliably learned that relief materials delivered by the oil firm in respect of the incident include 50 bags of beans, 100 bags of garri, 200 bags of rice, 200 bunches of plantain, 200 cartons of chicken, 200 cartons of noodles, 500 packs of 75cl bottle water, 25 bags of salt and 25 cartons of palm oil, among others.
However, experts have stressed the need to deploy sufficient oil spill containment and cleanup equipment and personnel to contain the raging spill which has taken over the Santa Barbara River, Swamps and lands and is gradually spreading to other communities in Bayelsa and the Kula axis of Rivers State.