POLLUTION: Ogoni on the brink of extinction

5 September, 2011, Sweetcrude, Lagos – THE report of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, titled an ‘Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland’ underscores in more eloquent terms the level of environmental neglect and degradation inflicted on the people as a result of hydrocarbon exploration and production, however what it failed to state in more explicit terms is that the Ogoni is on the brink of extinction. The UNEP report also underlines Sweetcrude’s devotion of two editions: ‘Nigeria’s poor oil spill response mechanism’ and ‘Oil spill in the Niger Delta: Ogoni as a metaphor’ to coverage of the operational recklessness and flagrant disregard for global best practices and domestic regulations by the international oil companies operating in the country.

After these publications, the immediate response of Shell was to bar this writer from any if its functions and cutting off correspondence with her to prevent further “bad reports” on the issue.
The findings of the UNEP Report are as alarming as they are damning. Many describe the situation as “probably the worse in the world” and wonder if remediation as prescribed can actually restore the ecosystem of Ogoniland. Clara Nwachukwu, assesses how regulatory negligence and the quest for petro-dollars have put a whole tribe at the risk of extinction.

Thirty years from now, rather than the rapid development that will lead to better standard of living, children born in Ogoni land, in Rivers State, southern Nigeria would still be grappling with the fallouts of the catastrophic environmental degradation visited upon them by Shell in collusion with the Nigeria state.

Medical experts say hydrocarbon pollution can cause body mutations, deformities, cancer, and fetal mutations. In particular, because of the high levels of exposure to benzene, the Ogoni people are at the risk of haematological problems in humans, which can affect the tissue responsible for producing blood cells. Other problems include excessive bleeding, immune system deficiencies, and aplastic anemia.

Benzene is also linked with an increased risk of many types of leukaemia (blood cancer). Larger doses of this chemical can result in vomiting, dizziness, and convulsions, and can ultimately lead to death. Dermal exposure to this chemical can result in reddening and blistering of the skin, and exposure to vapor and liquid form can cause irritation to the eyes, skin, and can also result in respiratory problems.

Females that are exposed to this chemical can suffer a decrease in the size of the ovaries as well as menstrual problems. Some studies – although not yet conclusive – have also suggested that the high level exposure to the chemical could also affect fertility in women.

As the oil company operating in the area cart away petro-dollars, the people are deprived or their means of livelihood, no more fishes in the rivers, no land to farm, even drinking water is taken away, leaving behind a diseased life and eventual death for the people.

“The environmental and public health impacts of oil contamination in Ogoni land is one of the most complex on-the ground assessments ever undertaken by UNEP,” the UN said.

It has been boos and cheers for the UNEP Report depending on the assessor. While for the oil companies the report has provided a comprehensive guide for cleanup and remediation, for independent analysts, the greater of the health impacts were deliberately understated in order not to hurt those who contracted it.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings the report was quite extensive, apportioning blame to whom it is due, notably government and its agencies, the Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, and the communities as well making recommendations on the way forward.

But Shell and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC the majority equity holder in the Shell Joint Venture operations, said, now was not the time for finger-pointing or apportioning blames, as the most important thing is to galvanise into action and salvage the

The Niger Delta struggle arose from agitations to have greater share of oil and gas wealth owing to the perceived failure of the Federal Government and oil companies operating in the oil-rich region to match development pace with the quantum of wealth derived from the natural resource exploited daily from the region.

Instead of the resource control they sought for, and for which some forebears have lost their lives, the people of Ogoniland will tether on the brink of extinction for the next 30 years waiting on a clean-up effort aimed at restoring their environment.

Major findings
Different levels of pollution and contamination not limited to those below were discovered in various communities in the area:
• Oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severely impacting many component of the environment.
• The soil contamination exceeds Nigerian national standards, as set out in the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industries in Nigeria (EGASPIN).
• An 8 cm layer of refined oil was observed floating on the groundwater which serves the community wells.
• Oil pollution in many intended creeks has left mangroves denuded of leaves and stems, leaving roots coated in a bitumen-like substance sometimes 1 cm or more thick.
• Any crops in areas directly impacted by oil spills will be damaged and root crops, such as cassava, will become unusable.
• The fisheries sector is suffering due to the destruction of fish habitat in the mangroves and highly persistent contamination of many of the creeks, making them unsuitable for fishing.
• Where a number of entrepreneurs had set up fish farms in or close to the creeks, their businesses have been ruined by an ever- present layer of floating oil.
• The wetlands around, Ogoniland area highly degraded and facing disintegration.
• Most members of the current Ogoniland community have lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives.
• Drinking contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline.
• Approximately 10%t of detected benzene concentration in Ogoniland were higher than the concentrations WHO and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) report as corresponding to a 1 in 10,000 cancer risk.
Factors leading to pollution
According to the report, a combination of issues, including institutional weaknesses and operational negligence led to the current state of pollution in Ogoniland. “Industry best practices and SPDC’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public safety issues,” it noted.

Again, Shell argued that Ogoni cannot be used as a yardstick for measuring its style of operations, as “all our processes, procedures in terms of environmental business or otherwise are subject to constant review and improvements,” Tony Okonedo, a spokesman for the group told Sweetcrude.

In view of the gravity and severity of the pollution, UNEP noted that issues listed below called for urgent attention:
* Ensure that all drinking water wells where hydrocarbons were detected are marked and that people are informed of the danger.
* Provide adequate sources of drinking water to those households whose drinking water supply is impacted.
* People in Nissioken Ogale who have been consuming water with benzene over 900 times the WHO guideline are recorded on a medical registry and their health status assessed and followed up.
* Initiate a survey of all drinking water wells around those wells where hydrocarbons were observed and arrange measures (1-3) as appropriate based on the results.
*Post signs around all the state identified as having contamination exceeding intervention values warning the communi9ty not to walk through or engage in any other activities at these sites.
*Post signs in areas where hydrocarbons were observed on surface water warning people not to fish, swim or berth in these areas.
* Inform all families whose main water samples tested possible for hydrocarbons and advise them not to consume the water and
*Mount a public awareness campaign to warn the individuals who are undertaking artisanal refining, that such activities are damaging their health.

Presidential committee
In its reaction to the release of the UNEP Report, the Nigerian government, on August 4, established a Presidential Inter-ministerial Committee to look into the report and its recommendations.

Strangely, the government did not deem it fit to include any Ogoni representative on the committee, and even human rights activist, Ledum Mittee who said he was a member of an earlier committee set up by late President Umaru YarÁdua on the same issue, also said he was never invited to any of its meetings and neither has the findings of that other committee been brought to bear on the Ogoni situation.

Even stranger is the fact that the Ogoni representatives in the National Assembly, appear less concerned about the matter, as despite countless calls, text messages to senators Lee Maeba and Magnus Abe, the law makers refused to be drawn into discussions on a matter that affects the very same people they claim to represent.

In, fact, after giving this Sweetcrude reporter the run around in Lagos and Abuja, Senator Meaba who represented the region for 8 years told Sweetcrude in Lagos, “I have a flight to catch, give me a call,” while his successor, Abbe, said at the only one time he picked his call, “Am with the Deputy Senate President, I’ll call you back.” He neither did, nor picked his calls thereafter.

Although the presidential committee, headed by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke was given two weeks from August 17, to submit its recommendations to the Presidency, the festive period to mark the end of the Muslim Ramadan season must have affected the committee’s work, as the committee could not meet the deadline.

While speaking on the development, Dr. Levi Ajuonuma, a spokesman for the NNPC, “details (of the committee’s work) will become clearer from Monday (yesterday).”

However, Chief executives of major international oil companies, IOCs met in Abuja, at the NNPC Towers at the instance of the Group Managing Director, NNPC, Mr. Austen Oniwon, to chart ways of dealing with the Ogoni land pollution. The meeting came exactly one week after the inauguration of the Presidential Committee.

The meeting, which held behind closed doors took off at about 5pm and went on till 10pm. In attendance were the Shell JV partners, notably, the Country Chairman, Shell Companies in Nigeria, Mr. Mutiu Sumonu, as well as his counterparts from France’s Total and Italy’s Eni-Agip, Mr. Guy Maurice and Mr. Cirio Antonio Pagano, respectively.

Sumonu, who exchanged pleasantry with Sweetcrude, did not however, wish to comment on the outcome of the meeting, which industry analysts believe will determine how far Federal Government is willing to go in ensuring cleaner operations in oil and gas activities in Nigeria.

The IOC chiefs were expected to submit their observations and recommendations to the minister, who in turn, will submit same to the Presidency. Thereafter, recommendations are expected to be made public for onward action and remediation.

However, representatives of the NNPC, Shell and the environment rights group, Environmental Rights Action/Friend of Environment Nigeria, ERA/FoEN expressed their opinions on some of the issues raised:

NNPC’s response
Understatement of the severity gravity of pollution –
“The United Nations is an independent body and Shell was not indicted as much as it should. You know that the opposite is true. For now government has responded by setting up a very high powered inter-ministerial committee headed by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke. Government will wait for the report of this inter-ministerial committee, which is working very hard to come up with their own report. So the UNEP report does not lack credibility, Nigeria and the international community has accepted their discoveries.

Apology by Government/Shell – “Let us not jump the gun, let us give government the benefit of the doubt, and remember this report was presented to the government and it was a voluminous report, and the president has set up an inter-ministerial committee to study the report, so the question of apology or not should wait until government officially comments on it. Government is taking the report very seriously; remember the No 1 citizen of this country is from the Niger Delta, so there will be responses that Nigerians will be very happy with when the committee submits its report, and government begins to implement the recommendations of the report.

NNPC’s negligence – “NNPC is part of the industry and we are ensuring that our response to the pollution is in tandem with what government wants us to do. One thing you should know is that government is interested in the clean up, and NNPC as an agent of government is interested in the clean up. All hands are on deck to fashion out a suitable response to a very serious environmental issue. Whatever role anybody is supposed to play, everybody is interested in playing it. The GMD of NNPC is providing the needed leadership to galvanise the industry response and that response will be announced in addition to that of the inter-ministerial committee to bring about a holistic solution to the problem.

Lack of oversight over JV partners
“Like I said, it is not time to apportion blame; we will restore the glory of Ogoni land. Laying blames will not help, let us move with instructions to do everything within the ambit of the industry to restore the glory of Ogoni land and we will do it.

Restoration Fund – The fund is a guide, what the report recommended is a guide, you and I know that nothing is cast on stone, it might cost less or cost more, but the amount is a guide, which we will follow in taking various remedial steps to clean up the environment, as nobody is saying it must be $1billion. What is important is that government is determined to clean up Ogoni land and restore the environment.

Shell response
Court case – “Of the several spills in Ogoni land we admitted responsibility for two of the spills in Bodo, this means that we are not responsible for all the spills in Ogoni land. With regard to the litigations in the British court, the case is still at the preliminary stage and no judgment has been awarded for or against Shell.

Damages of $410m – It is premature to talk about paying damages since the case is still on. Our focus for now is to support a cleanup process, which is what we are doing.

UNEP Report – We consider it a good road map going forward. It’s not an SPDC report but one commissioned by the Federal Government. Judging from the responses, one would think we are the only operator in Ogoni land, and we have not been treated fairly in the matter. The report now provides us a good framework for development, reconciliation and cleanup of spills in the area.

Preparedness for cleanup – We are ready to play our part, NNPC and DPR the industry regulators are the chief guide, and we are ready to follow their lead in collaboration with other stakeholders including government to bring about the desired result.

Operating standard – It is too early to start to take a position on specifics. We are now doing a thorough review of the report internally because we are interested in ensuring that our collective objectives as a company are met. Besides, occurrences in Ogoni land are not typical of SPDC operations because we’ve been out of there for 16 years. And we have not had access to secure either our facilities, cleanup the spills or do remediation. Remember the circumstances that led to our impromptu departure – violence, threats to our facilities, our people and our operations.

Long period of remediation – The way forward will come from the leadership, in this case, government and regulators, and we will see some sort of initiative from government as to the way forward.

Industry response – While being the industry leader, we are not perfect and our environmental operations are always under review with a view to improvement. As such, all our processes, procedures in terms of environmental business or otherwise are subject to constant review and improvements. Our approach is that any finger-pointing or blame laying is not going to help at this point but for all stakeholders to do the right thing and bring about the desired results.

Assessment of report – If only we (the nation) and more especially the oil and gas sector can do away with politics in this area that affects the very existence of Nigeria, we would records far more gains. The report and study, if one is to call it such, is quite lopsided in terms of the study make up.

DPR’s involvement – How can such a study have been done without the full participation of the DPR? That is the politics I refer to. No one can fault the technical powerhouse of the DPR.

Shell operations – Such insincerity of SPDC really tells a lot of the way they operate in Nigeria. They were very willing to dish out the fee paid for this report. We (the country represented by the DPR), have asked severally for such support to carry out similar programs in the past, with no result. They would rather pay for this study rather than allocate funds to remediate and carry out their operations in an environmentally sound way.

Implementation of recommendations – It is so easy to make recommendations like as been done in the past but implementation is what I worry about. If simple things like the environmental monitoring of their (oil operators) operations are carried out, the country would not be in the position it finds itself now. The operating companies are driven by profit and their focus is on dollars and cents. We as regulators do our best to remind them of the need and indeed of the possibility of sustainable operations, but it is only when there is pressure from the international community that any attention is paid to our plea. Like is the case now.

Depth of Report – Suddenly, after over 60 years in oil business in Nigeria, we want to talk about oil impact. What we see is what it is and more as there are many areas not yet exposed. We have seen this ploy played out several times and on it goes until the next news takes center stage. The world plays on the mono economic stand of our resource and so our hands are tied.

Multiple regulations – This is not new to any industry. We can only plead that extant laws and regulations are referenced before new agencies are created to forestall the kind of confusion and waste of resources experienced now. Why do a job 5 times over when efforts can be coordinated and streamlined to produce the results sought. Nonetheless, every agency has its expertise and that shouldn’t be discounted for the sake of politics.

Naming and shaming – ‘Shout and tell’ may well be the only option going forward as we see a deliberate attempt to frustrate and take for granted the country’s efforts and goodwill.

Responsibility for pollution – Playing on words and misrepresentation of facts will get Shell nowhere. Clearly, the UNEP report documents Shell as being responsible for the pollution of the environment in Ogoniland and we will not be wrong to say that pollution in other parts of Niger Delta where the company operates can also be blamed on the company’s ill-maintained facilities.

Severity of pollution – UNEP said benzene, a known carcinogen, was found in drinking water in Ogoniland at a level 900 times above WHO standards. Similarly, it discovered hydrocarbons at levels 1000 times above Nigerian drinking water standards in Ogoniland. We have said that though the UNEP report is commendable, a comprehensive environmental audit of the entire Niger Delta where oil extraction activities are carried out should be embarked upon. The Bodo incident indicates that, not only Ogoniland suffers the pollution inflicted on the environment by Shell. There are several communities in Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers that have suffered and still suffer from oil spills that ravage their rivers, farmlands and immediate environment of habitation.

$410million worth damages – Realistically speaking, you cannot quantify the cost of Shell’s environmental recklessness on the lives of the people. While we do not know what measurables the analysts used to arrive at that figure, we can say it is a laudable first step. But like I stated earlier, you cannot really replace the ecological onslaught on water bodies, the health impacts and dislocation that the company’s operations have caused and which is still ongoing till this day. You must not forget that the UNEP documented that fisheries have been destroyed and that wetlands around Ogoniland are highly degraded and facing degradation. These combined, have led to irreparable loss of livelihoods and will take 30 years to remediate.

UNEP Report – ERA as an organisation welcomes the UNEP report as a first step towards confronting the challenges confronting the Ogoni people because we now have an expose that was far beyond imagination. The report confirmed what the late Ken Saro-Wiwa described as grave injustice inflicted on his land for which he and others paid the supreme price. However, the report also exposes the hypocrisy of the Nigerian regulatory agencies that have consistently failed to sanction Shell when glaring breaches of the environmental laws were observed. It is even a double tragedy when we recall that last year government officials not only quoted wrong figures of spills, but also went ahead to state that oil spills have been cleaned up and remediation carried out in many parts of the Niger Delta. The challenge before us now is how the government will compel Shell to embark on the 30-year cleanup when its regulatory agencies cannot adequately verify spills, cleanups or sanction erring oil firms. Like we had stated before now, the Federal Government must as a responsibility to the Ogoni people declare the area and indeed the entire Niger Delta a disaster zone.

ERA/FoEN community programmes – We must start with what ERA has been doing before now. As an organization, our staff are all field monitors and regularly visit impacted communities across the country to document environmental ravages as well as gather testimonies from community people impacted by such incidents. We regularly organise environmental monitoring trainings and town hall meetings where community people are sensitized on dangers to their environment and appropriate non-violent response. Because of this, we have earned the trust of the locals so that whenever there are incidents the kind of which we are talking about, the people alert us either through sms or phone calls. We have been doing this in the Niger Delta for years and you can find our reports on our website www.eraction.org . As regards the outcome of the UNEP investigation, we are in synergy with community-based groups in Ogoni that have called on the government to guarantee genuine community representation in the proposed Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority to forestall any attempt by Shell to dodge responsibility. The issue of pipeline security which you talked of, must be done in concert with the communities, not unscrupulous contractors interested in getting more money by creating a false sense of insecurity around the pipes. Irrespective of all that have been said about pipeline incidents, ill-maintained facilities by Shell and the other oil companies in the Niger Delta can be blamed on most of the incidents.

Going forward
Opinions are as varied as the respondents, but the more concern is on how soon government and the JV partners will swing into action, as opposed to politicizing the issue. Many analysts compare the timeline for restoration with the Gulf of Mexico, GoM oil spill
Events GoM Ogoniland
Spill April 20, 2010 1950s & above
Responsibility/Apology BP takes responsibility, None yet
apologises soon after
Cleanup Fund $21.3bn $1bn recommended
Compensation Fund $20bn None recommended
Affected people 195,000 Over 5million
Remediation period less than one year 30 years

In view of the scenario above, analysts envision that the 30 year timeline recommended for remediation may take forever, given that no action has commenced even in the face of emergency intervention.

Furthermore, analysts are of the view that whatever remediation to be undertaken, must be carried out in accordance with global practice, because as already noted in the UNEP Report, previous remediation works were not executed satisfactorily. As such, contractors to be engaged for the projects must be properly certified as having the requisite expertise and competence to handle the jobs. The cleanup of Ogoni land should not be used as another avenue for “jobs for the boys” and other political allies.

About the Author

  • I’m not impressed with the rvemoal of Shell. After all, the oil fields in Ogoniland have been abandoned for years. So the way the feds have presented the story merely a spin. Is the fed ready to really enforce the operating laws and regulations of the oil and gas sector?If we are serious about pollution/environmental degration why not close all onshore oil drills until the companies are ready to play decently?Yes, we will lose big money, but we would have sent clear messages to the drillers to sit up, and the local community would see the sincerity of the government. To me this is the most viable way to deal with the Niger-Delta issue: Close the onshore wells and focus offshore.On Gambari, I see another clever use of power. What is the advantage of bring a man who is not familiar with the issues and terrain over someone who is local and can relate to the problems beyond just reading the briefs?We have Utomi, Soyinka, etc if the feds wants a neutral person. Gambari has spent the bulk of his diplomatic carrier outside Nigeria, he is an establishment man. He is not going to make any difference. He has no moral capital to deal with locals.