20 July 2012, Sweetcrude, WARRI – “BONGA oil spill has altered our life”, says Mr. Ebiyekon Williams, a community leader at Azatitor community in Ekeremor local government area of Bayelsa State, in reference to the December 20, 2011 oil spill at Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company-operated Bonga field. He added: “Till now, we have been disturbed from carrying out our normal fishing occupation because of the heavy pollution of our river since last year.
“What we have observed in our area is that our women are having miscarriages, while there are cases of severe headache and vomiting. Life was good for us before the Bonga spill, we have oil wells, but we are not yet oil-bearing. Please tell government to come and help us, the people are dying here.”
The Bonga incident spilled some 40,000 barrels of crude oil into the high sea, which reportedly later reached the coastal communities. It has been adjudged Nigeria’s worst and biggest oil spill in about three decades.
We are famished – Ogbeintu women, children
At Ogbeintu, where clean up exercise was carried out by Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, SNEPCo, just as it did in some other communities, frustration was written visibly on the faces of women and children. They openly begged for money to buy food, saying they were hungry and had no other means of livelihood since crude spill allegedly from Bonga polluted their river.
One of the community leaders told Sweetcrude, “It is not strange, you can see that this place (Ogbeintu and other neighbouring communities) are practically cut off from civilisation, there is acute hunger here, and the people beg anybody who comes around money for survival because it is not easy for them. Anything you have, you can give them, they are not forcing you, if you don’t have”.
Begging for money
“We are all Ijaw people, I cannot deny them because they are begging for money to buy food, if they were fishing, they will not beg you for money, they will give you fish to eat, but there is nothing now.”
Ex-militants loiter around: At Agge community, Sweetcrude ran into some ex-militants who were smoking Indian hemp under a tree at a strategic location at Agge. Still behaving like overlords, they barred our crew from taking photographs and threatened to deal with the “intruders’, but some community leaders intervened before they agreed to simmer down.
Motorcycle to the rescue: At the time of our visit, it was not possible to go by boat to Ogbeintu, Oroibiri and Azamabiri community, which is the closest to Bonga oil field in that axis. This was because of the high river tide. The only available means of transportation is motorcycle, riding on the seaside and that was what our reporter used.
Oroibiri women spoil for showdown:
At Oroibiri, the women said the spill was still affecting fishing in the area, complaining that their planned protest was halted by a woman activist, Mrs. Sarah Gbagbo, who appealed to them to give Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, SPDC – the parent company of SNEPCo – time after a senior official pleaded with her to beg the people, but till now, the company has not done anything.
One of the women, Mrs Juliana Oyadongha said: “We will protest if they don’t provide us with a means of livelihood, our suffering here has been too much since the crude spill”.
Azamabiri worst hit – His Highness Edi, High Chief Fedezena
The nearest community to Bonga oil field and the worst hit from our findings is Azamabiri community in Bayelsa state. The community is less than 100 nautical miles from Bonga. His Highness, Emmanuel Edi, recalled the December 20, 2011 oil spillage with melancholy, saying, “We are the worst hit, you can see that we are the closest. After that corner you see in the front (indicated a direction with his hand at the high seas), you get to Bonga.
“The spillage affected us and is still affecting us; all our fishing nets were destroyed. Though SPDC said it had carried out clean up, it is still difficult for our people to pull their nets out of the water when they cast them for fish because the chemicals used to disperse crude from Bonga field affect them.
“My people now go to the high sea because of the thickness of the crude oil spill. It damaged our fishing nets and the dispersants used worsened the whole thing. No relief material was sent by Shell since the incident and they did not also bother to deploy doctors and medical drugs to attend to our health problems. We have observed chronic cough, catarrh, headache and stooling, which are still prevalent till date.”
How SPDC deceived us — Mrs. Gbagbo, activist
Woman leader of Azamabiri and activist, Mrs. Sarah Gbagbo, was very angry at the antics of Shell when she spoke to Sweetcrude. She said: “Two days after the December 20 spill, the company called a stakeholders’ meeting in Warri, where they told us about the Bonga spill and told us to be alert in case the spill comes around to our communities.” She said an SPDC official pleaded with her to beg the women to simmer down and that the company would replace their damaged fishing nets, but till the time she spoke to Sweetcrude, nothing had been done.
Her words: “I came to my community (Azamabiri) on December 24 and from Agge Palm Bush to Oroibiri, the impact was everywhere, I could not pass, I called a top official of SPDC, he said I should send Short Message System, SMS. On December 25, they arranged community visits and the next day, 26th, they called me to join them for a JIV (Joint Investigation) tour.
Delay tactics: “They flew us to Forcados, nothing happened that day, they brought us back and on December 27, they flew us again to the same place. All the while, I did not know that it was delay tactics they were using to keep us out while the company was busy dispersing the crude. They did not want some of us to see the extent of the crude spill in our communities so that we would not cry out.
“After they had dispersed the spill, they now took us to Bonga. At Bonga, they told us that the spill did not get to the shoreline and this was after they had dispersed it. It was NIMASA that stood its grounds, maintaining that crude flowed to the shorelines.”
Not a mystery spill: Gbagbo said she was shocked to her bones when SPDC came up after the JIV with the claim that what occurred was a mystery spill and the truth would be determined when the result of the fingerprinting is out.
She fumed: “I can tell you that SPDC does not want peace, are they using the ignorance of the people to punish them or what? Our ecosystem is polluted, we are drinking from the same water they polluted with crude and this thing has a long time effect, and they are talking about mystery spill, from what they know was caused by them.”
We did not trick anybody — Okonedo
SPDC’s media manager, Mr. Tony Okonedo, in response to Gbagbo’s outburst, said there was a lot of work going on during the dispersal of crude oil with vessels and airplanes, and so, it was not appropriate at that time to fly people to the place when serious work was going on.
We catch oil instead of fish – Ogbolo, Aghoro I community
At Aghoro 1 community in Ekeremor local government of Bayelsa state, Mr. Jacob Ogbolo asserted: “Bonga spill affected us and till today, we are still feeling the impact. Our main occupation is fishing, we farm a little, and we do not catch fishes again when we set our net because of the effect of the crude oil spill. We catch oil instead of fish now and the dispersants used are a problem to our environment.
“We drink water from River Ramos but because of the spill, it is now causing us sickness. Our babies are suffering from cholera.”
Like Mrs. Gbago, he said he was surprised that SPDC was tagging the spill a mystery spill, adding, “I have a sample of the spill. We are not bunkerers, SPDC invited us to a meeting on December 22, 2011 and told us there was a spill in Bonga, why are they saying it is a mystery spill now”.
Ogbolo said the clean up that was done in Aghoro I community was not done properly, as the chemicals were still affecting the people.
No more fishes in our river – Chief Azuzufunwei, Mrs Ebinabi, Aghoro community
Woman leader, Mrs. Alice Ebinabi said: “We are afraid as our river is contaminated, we can’t drink our water anymore because it gives us health problem. The soil we plant our crops is also contaminated as a result of the spill, just like our animals are also affected”.
Eldest man in Aghoro, Chief Siere Azuzufunwei told Sweetcrude, “Since the spill, there is no fish again in our river; it is like they used a poisonous chemical in the whole community. Shell should give us potable water; provide us with relief materials and compensation because they are the ones that caused us this problem”.
The battle between the affected communities and the oil company has since shifted to the court. Igbapike, who spoke to Sweetcrude in Warri said the people were not only dumbfounded by the perpendicular claim of the alleged polluter , but by the failure of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, the lead agency in oil spill response management in the country to perform its duty.
The affected communities had since approached a Federal High Court in Asaba, Delta state, to determine, among other things, whether the oil spill, which Shell unilaterally adjudged by itself to be about 40,000 barrels of crude oil is a tier-three oil spill.
Furthermore, the court is to determine whether SNEPCo/SPDC were empowered to unilaterally manage a third-tier oil spill without recourse to NOSDRA; and whether by virtue of the NOSDRA (Establishment) Act, 2006 and its regulations, the oil multinational company ought not to have reported the oil spill within 24 hours to the nearest zonal office of the agency.
Communities seek clarification
In addition, the communities are praying the court to determine whether the nearest zonal office of NOSDRA is not in Warri, Delta State and if the oil company was not bound to pay a penalty of N500,000 daily for everyday of default to report to the appropriate office of NOSDRA. Besides, the communities urged the court to resolve whether by regulation 9 of the Oil Spill and Oily Waste Management Regulation, 2011, NOSDRA ought not to constitute a Joint Investigation Team, JIV, made up of SNEPCo, SPDC and the affected communities within 24 hours.
Also, they prayed the court to decide whether the clean up method of third-tier oil spillage, together with the award of contracts for clean up, ought not to be in compliance with the NOSDRA Act 2006, Oil Spill and Oily Waste Management Regulation, 2011 and Oil Spill Recovery, Clean-Up, Remediation and Damage Assessment Regulation, 2011.
They also asked the court to make a declaration that NOSDRA is the lead agency in oil response management in the country and not any other government ministry, agency or parasatal, including SNPECo and SPDC.
On the use of dispersants by the multinational to contain about 40,000 barrels of crude oil, they urged the court to declare the action as a violation of regulations 21, 22, 23 and 24 of the Oil Spill Recovery, Clean Up, Remediation and Damage Regulation, 2011. Finally, they asked the court to order NOSDRA to immediately constitute JIV to visit the location where the spill occurred to investigate the cause and extent of the spill.