December 12, 2021

OIL SPILLS REVELATION IN N-DELTA: Thousands of babies, others dead – Akene, environmentalist


File image of Ogoni land, polluted by oil spills.

•Says region facing worst degradation, despoliation

•MAJOR EFFECTS: Breathing difficulties, increased blood pressures, heart rhythm changes, skin ulcer, stomach irritation, muscle weakness, changes in  nerve reflexes, and brain damages

By Samuel Oyadongha, Yenagoa

Furoebi Akene, an environmental crusader, was Commissioner for Lands & Survey in Bayelsa State. He is the Executive Chairman, Centre for Environmental Preservation and Development (CEPAD), an advocacy group for environmental justice in the blighted oil rich Niger Delta.

Akene, with a vast experience in the operations of the nation’s oil and gas industry having worked in the past with some of the oil majors, lamented the endless crude oil spills in the region and stressed the need to preserve the fragile environment which, according to him, is facing the worst degradation and despoliation. He speaks against the backdrop of the oil wellhead blowout in the Nembe creek of Bayelsa following which estimated two million barrels of crude has reportedly been spilled into the river, polluting the flora and fauna of the area. Excerpts:

The discovery of crude is supposed to be a blessing to the people on whose land it is found but the reverse appears to be case in Nigeria. What is your take?

This is, indeed, a sad commentary on the Nigerian state. As a matter of fact, when crude oil was first discovered at Otuabagi in then-Oloibiri division in the present Bayelsa State in commercial quantity over six decades ago, the people greeted the development with so much joy and high expectations for a better life. Little did they know that this discovery and exploitation of this natural endowment beneath their ancestral soil would be their worst nightmare.

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This is applicable to all the communities in the Niger Delta because there is no community in the Niger Delta that is not host to oil operations. It is worthy of note that all the communities are hosts to oil fields, oil wells or pipelines criss-crossing their landscape. Regardless of the catastrophic damages crude oil caused to the environment when introduced into it, the operators and the Nigerian government regulatory agencies responsible pay little or no attention to ensure sustainably safe operations. For instance, oil mining leases have expiry dates, so also the pipes and other facilities used in the oil fields.

Some have complained about the integrity of crude oil and gas pipelines in the region. What is your take?

Actually, pipelines have life span, yet, operators and regulatory agencies don’t care about the renewal of leases when they expire or replacement of the pipes as and when due. In the same vein, based on experience, I can say that compromise is the first name of many agents from host states with little enticement, not minding the danger inherent in it.

Since most of the pipes and other facilities have outlived their life span, they cannot withstand the high pressure of the crude oil or gas as the case may be flowing through them, hence the bursting and leakages, which the operators, in collaboration with the federal regulatory agencies and compromised by the host state agents in most cases, declare as third-party interference otherwise known as sabotage.

But there have been recorded cases of sabotage…

Agreed there are cases of third-party interferences, but more than fifty per cent of the cases declared as third-party interference are really equipment failure such as corrosion. The other major issue of grave concern is the under reporting of the volume and spread of each spill with a view to avoiding the correct payment of compensations. The polluters, with their collaborators, in most cases, use a multilateral approach of divide and rule, coercion, and blackmail.

The clean-up exercises are always very crude as they engage the services of locals to spread and compound the effect by scooping the escaped crude, dig pits and bury or using open air uncontrolled incineration otherwise known as burning. It should be noted that all their so-called acclaimed cleanups, remediation and recovery of the environment are on paper and never on site. We have some recorded cases of gas leakage and oil spills in Bayelsa in recent times such as the crude oil blowout from a wellhead on the 1st of November 2021 owned by AITEO around the Santa Barbara river in the Nembe Creek in Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State which the operators are still battling to stop; and a gas leakage around Sangana in the Atlantic estuary on the 31st of October 2021 owned by CONOIL in the Brass Local Government Area of Bayelsa State.

There is also crude oil spill around Okpotuwari along the 14’ Ogboinbiri/Tebidaba pipeline in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State on the 18th of September 2021 owned by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) where the activities of an unprofessional clean up contractor allegedly caused serious inferno such that hundreds of hectares of land in Okpotuwari/Ondewari forest have been consumed by the inferno, the crude oil spill at Well 24 in Opukushi oil field in June 2021 around Egbema-Angalabiri in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State owned by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria among others.

What are the implications of these spills on the environment?

The consequences of these environmental catastrophes and the socioeconomic losses cannot be quantified. Right now, there is so much hunger and starvation in Nembe and Brass Local Government Areas and part of Southern Ijaw Local Government Area because all their fishing gears have been destroyed and all the fishes and other aquatic lives have been killed which have resulted to zero economic activities in the areas as a result of the recent spills from the CONOIL and AITEO facilities. The same is applicable to other spill impacted communities in the region.

Also, the short- and long-term health implications that are associated with these spills could spell doom in the affected areas if urgent medical attention is not given as the possibility of sicknesses and diseases that may spring up even in epidemic dimensions cannot be ruled out. Also contaminations from oil spillage often cause liver or lungs poisoning thereby damage kidneys, liver and cause deaths. Others include breathing difficulties, increased blood pressures, heart rhythm changes, skin ulcer, stomach irritation, muscle weakness, changes in nerve reflexes, and brain damages among others. A study conducted confirms that oil spills have also claimed the lives of thousands of babies born to mothers who live in areas contaminated by such incidents.

A study conducted by Spill Monitors and the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2013, using the information on the geo-coordinates and dates confirms that the neonatal mortality rates is up to 76 deaths per year for every 1,000 live births and that the effects of oil spills on neonatal mortality persist for several years after the occurrence of an oil spill. Reports published in the Nigerian medical journal; January – February edition of 2013 says inter-alia; Oil spills in the Niger Delta have acute and long-term effects on the human health. The crude oil contains some naturally occurring radioactive materials -NORM- having radiation level far higher than the World Health Organization -WHO- recommended permissible limit of drinking water. Unfortunately, this is the water the people of the Niger Delta in the oil producing areas and spill impacted communities are drinking.

What is the way out of this disturbing scenario?

From what is happening, the companies ignore the known international health, safety and environment standards and operating at what I will want call the “Nigerian Standard”, and the various tiers of government don’t care, even the host state and local government. It will not be wrong for one to say it is a deliberate attempt to wipe out or annihilate the people, wild and aquatic lives of the areas through what is now known as environmental terrorism or ecocide.

It is my solemn appeal to all authorities, individuals, including international organizations’ to come to the rescue of the people of the oil producing Niger Delta region before it is too late. It is so unfortunate and disappointing that the states are so complacent about what affect the health and economic livelihood of the people they are supposed to protect. The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) has just ended in Glasgow, United Kingdom this November, and much was talked about reduction of greenhouse gases and call on countries to report their progress towards more climate ambition next year at COP27 in Egypt. Also, developed countries and developing countries were given serious instructions to meet up their mandate. It is my utmost desire and appeal to the government of the states in the Niger Delta to follow up critically with the Federal Government and the polluters to stop this madness of incessant oil spills and gas leakages in the region.

There should also be careful and critical pressure and follow-ups to ensure that our peculiar issues take the front burner in the fourth coming COP 27 in Egypt next year. Let me burrow the words of Inger Andersen – UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director at the end of COP 26 part of which says “We can’t undo the mistakes of the past. But this generation of political and business leaders, this generation of conscious citizens, can make things right.” Let us work hard and make things right for the Niger Delta region and create a world of peace, prosperity and equity.