All my cassava, cocoyam, sugar cane completely burnt down

By Samuel Oyadongha – Yenagoa

As national and global attention is focused on the Santa Barbara River in the mangrove swamp of Nembe in Nembe LGA where a ruptured wellhead has been spewing crude oil into the creeks, rivers, rivulets, and gradually to the Atlantic ocean, another oil-related inferno has devastated a vast stretch of the luxuriant rainforest around the Okpotuawari/Ondewari corridor along the Ossiama Creek in the deep swamp of Southern Ijaw Local Area

This swathe of land, known as the Okpotuwari/Ondewari forest is home to several species of wildlife, farms, fishponds, raffia palms, and palm wine tapping camps and have been left in ruins and may take several years to restore the heavy impacted and scorched environment to its former level.

Saturday Vanguard finding revealed that Ondewari and Okpotuwari are not only neighbouring communities in Olodiama clan but also sister communities from same ancestry (Olodi) separated by the enthralling Ossiama Creek. They not only share common boundaries, but also shared same negative impacts from oil industry induced pollution, especially from the Ogboinbiri/Tebidaba pipeline owned by Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) over the years.

Interestingly, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Head of Bayelsa office, Mr. Alagoa Morris had visited several oil spill impacted sites within this environment and documented same.

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According to the renowned environmentalist, “while some of the spill incidents are officially declared on Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) reports as caused by third party interference, ERA/FoEN is also aware that a good number of the JIV reports indicated some of the spill incidents to have occurred as a result of equipment failure.” Morris who led some journalists including this reporter to the deep of the scorched forest lamented that instead of proper cleanup and remediation of oil spill impacted sites, the negative practice of setting ablaze of such environment in the name of cleanup or whatever has turned out to be the norm in the Niger Delta leaving the environment further degraded. “This recent one in Ondewari and Okpotuwari environment has become one too many associated with Agip,” he lamented adding that the same area had in the past experienced two major fire incidents before the latest one. To buttress his claim, he cited the JIV report dated 22nd July, 2008 in connection with the spill of 12th July, 2008 along Agip’s 14’’ Ogboinbiri/Tebidaba pipeline which recorded 20 barrels as quantity of crude oil that spilled. Another JIV report with reference No. 2015/SAR/105/150 associated with the same 14’’ Ogboinbiri/Tebidaba pipeline indicated that a spill occurred on 14th April, 2015 and 45 barrels of crude oil spewed into the environment.

Also, along the same 14’’ Ogboinbiri/Tebidaba pipeline belonging to NAOC, a major oil spill was recorded in July, 2015. The JIV for that spill indicated 2015/SAR/193 as Reference number and, date of spill as 19th July, 2015 with quantity of spilled crude oil recorded as 100 barrels.

Morris asserted: “While ERA/FoEN is aware that issues relating to date of incident and volume of spilled crude oil are not factual (as volume spilled are recorded lower than actual and dates on incident pushed forward all in favour of the operator); what these three incidents cited here share in common is that; they were all recorded in the JIV as EQUIPMENT FAILURE incidents. And there are more such incidents of equipment failure in the same environment.

“However, the spill impacted sites of the incident of 12th July, 2008 and that of 19th July, 2015 were also set ablaze; affecting vast expanse of land/swampy environment and destroying several economic trees and palm wine/local gin brewing camps.”

Lamentation

While locals are insisting that the current spill was first noticed in July, the JIV report which excluded community folks recorded 18th September, 2021 as date of incident. The JIV also indicated that the spill was caused by third party interference.

The visibly disturbed indigenes of Ondewari and Okpotuwari who spoke to Saturday Vanguard at the scorched site condemned the act of burning the oil spill impacted environment and beyond, especially at it destroyed their economic trees and other property.

Madam Domotimi Yeiyei, a native of Ondewari and a co-owner of the devastated forest, aged 64 and mother of seven who spoke in her native Ijaw dialect said: “as you can see the fire has destroyed our farmland and means of livelihood. All my cassava, cocoyam and sugar cane have been completely burnt down. How do I cater for my children,” she lamented using a stick to scoop up the soil.

At the spill site were French Okoloko, Dennis Elliot, Captain Golio, Youth President, Dingo Isoko, Ayibaemi Thompson Ibiodo, former CDC Chairman, Tontiemotei Yeitei, Field Officer of Ondewari Health, Education and Environmental Project (OHEEP), and Mrs Nimiemi Morris also of (OHEEP).

Others from Okpotuwari include Tiger Moses (Paramount Ruler), Ebiki Christopher (Financial Secretary), Ebiki Jacob (Treasurer), Chief Joel Keke (Deputy chief of the community), Gbodoghe Sanugba (CDC Chairman) and Ogugu Jacob (Youth President) who came late to the scene looking shell shocked.

Though the spill was reportedly discovered by the locals around July, 2021, Saturday Vanguard learned that the oil firm and regulators went for JIV without informing or involving the communities.

Chief Tiger Moses, the paramount ruler of Okpotuwari, while lamenting the sad turn of event said their economic trees, farmlands, fishponds and fishing traps have been destroyed noting that they were not involved in the JIV report as it was secretly done by the firm without their knowledge.

Also the deputy paramount ruler, Chief Joel Keke decried the practice of setting fire on spill site under the guise of clean up exercise and called on the company to come to their aid.

Captain Golio, Youth President, Ondewari community described the incident as one catastrophe that has taken them back many years and would take years to recover, adding that their socio economic life have been disrupted.

He said, “it is more painful knowing our problem is man-made and not nature that man has no control over. The spilled crude should have been recovered, dumped in a burrow pit and later evacuated into barges at their water front for onward disposal in an environmental friendly manner instead of setting same ablaze”.

The natives said they were surprised when a cleanup contractor approached them for the cleanup job around the second week of November, 2021. They said after engaging some persons from both communities for the cleanup exercise, the contractor said it was okay after three days work. It was alleged that the contractor engaged some persons to later set fire at the spill impacted site. Though the name of the cleanup contractor was not mentioned during the site visit, it was alleged that he was instrumental to setting the site ablaze.

Describing the incident as one too many, Morris, said: “The practice whereby oil spill environment are being burnt off is not needed. This is the sad reality we have endured for too long and the world need to hear. We are now here in Okpotuware and Ondewari environment. We can no longer take this because it is a negative environmental practice, further degrading the environment and this is happening in this country because the regulatory agencies have not been able to follow through. If you look at the JIV reports they will tell you that after they have taken the volume of spill and everything they will follow up with immediate clean up which is the recommendation of NOSDRA and Ministry of Environment and the DPR before it was scrapped but that will be the end of reaching that site leaving the communities to contend with these giant oil companies. Nobody knows what happened after that time. The local people have been denied their means of livelihood just as you see here.

Woes

“Today you can see the woes and environmental tales of the people of Okpotuware and Ondewari, how they have been shortchanged, the heavy health bills. They don’t have clean drinking water, their farms, fish ponds and livelihood threatened. The conclusion of the matter is that, Agip should be held accountable considering the fact that the action of an agent is tied to the principal. Besides, it has increasingly become a trade mark for Agip oil spill sites. One such incident led to the death of a young man returning from farm/fishing at Emago-Kugbo as fire and smoke prevented him from going back home and he suffocated and died. The practice of using fire as cleanup or to conceal and reduce volume of spilled crude oil in impacted sites is inimical to sustainable environment and it is condemned no matter who causes it directly or indirectly.

Our Plea

“Agip is culpable, including oil industry regulators who only go to site for JIV and fail to follow through to ensure impacted environment are properly cleaned and remediated. This scenario gives cleanup contractors liberty to resort to unwholesome practices and smile to the banks while the environment suffers increasing degradation and denial to the people. This is environmental injustice.

“We are calling on the Federal Government that arrogates to itself the power over everything about oil and gas to prevail on the Nigerian Agip Oil Company to come back to site and do proper clean up of the oil spill impacted environment and pay compensation. Apart from their right of way that is still heavily polluted, you can see the presence of hydrocarbon outside the right of way with damaged and burnt off economic trees, farms and fish ponds all destroyed. This practice is condemnable, unacceptable and they need to be penalized”.

He therefore urged the Federal Government to look seriously into this and other related matters with the urgency it deserves and also called on Bayelsa State government to take appropriate steps to make sure nothing less than proper cleanup and remediation of the impacted environment is done by Agip. According to him, “there is no other way than plead when human beings and all-powerful corporations have resorted to this wicked expressions, to protect their interests and fully legitimizing environmental terrorism on a people. The destroyed property and fully wrecked forest standing for all to see are lasting scars which will take several years to heal.”

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