ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION IN THE NIGER DELTA
While the States in the Niger Delta region are happy and proud to bear the crude oil that is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, we call on the Federal Government, oil and gas companies and indeed the entire nation to go beyond the legalistic realm in addressing the mirage of problems which oil bearing communities are daily subjected.
The restive situation in the Niger Delta can be blamed on heinous environmental crimes and breach of good environmental management by multinational oil companies. Over the past decades, the Niger Delta terrain has been overrun through deliberate over-exploitation carried out in total disregard of the basic principles of sustainable environmental management. On the extent of damage caused by the oil firms, from available information, close to 4,000 oil wells have so far been drilled in the Niger Delta and offshore areas since 1957. The 4,000 sites constitute potentially polluted sites at which drilling wastes, drill cuttings, oil sludge’s and various toxic hazardous chemicals have been disposed.
In this article I am going to focus on the Delta State which is one of the 9 States that makes up the Niger Delta region. Delta State forms a large part of the Niger Delta wetland and it is the largest oil producing state in Nigeria. Consequently, the State is exposed to a large proportion of the environmental degradation and health hazards, which normally accompany exploration and exploitation of crude oil. The frequency of oil spill in the State is no longer news as its negative impact on the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem is well known. This is one of the reasons behind the articulated struggle for resource control by the oil producing States, which is expected to enable the people of the region to take their destiny in their own hands.
Various forms of ecological degradation exist throughout the state. Apart from crude oil, the State is blessed with a number of industries whose activities also generate waste. If these are not properly managed, they could also result in environmental pollution. Many towns and villages in the coastal areas suffer severely from coastal erosion and river siltation. The mining of sand and dredging of rivers are also aggravating coastal degradation in the State. The state is well-known in the Federation for the very fast rate of coastal recession besetting it. Equally, serious gully and sheet erosions are very common in the northern senatorial district of the State which deserves attention.
Decades of dictatorship, a breakdown of civil society, and a near complete lack of attention to environmental concerns have turned the Niger delta into one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems; an epicenter of human rights abuses and environmental injustice. However, since electing a civilian President in 1999 — its first in nearly two decades — Nigerian in the Niger Delta have embarked on a new campaign to seek environmental justice. They are not only looking at the government to make change but they are also demanding that corporations be held accountable for their abuses. Some even insist that corporations-including the many foreign oil companies operating in the Niger Delta — pay restitution to communities that have been devastated by their actions. Also, tackle the Herculean environmental disaster left in the wake of oil exploitation and the dislocated economic needs of the people of the region. Denied benefit of their wealth and exposed to devastating environmental pollution and degradation as exemplified in the prodigious flaring of N450 million worth of associated gas per day with attendant environmental consequences on the health of the people.
In 1999, a tragedy befell the citizens of Erovie, a community in the Niger delta who were poisoned by toxic waste from Shell Oil’s operations. This graphic example was a clear case of environmental racism: the disproportionate impacts of pollution borne by communities of color around the world. Local residents began to experience health problems soon after Shell Oil Company injected a million liters of a waste into an abandoned oil well in Erovie. Many who consumed crops or drank water from swamps in the area complained of vomiting, dizziness, stomach ache and cough. Within two months 93 people had died from this mysterious illness. Independent tests by two Nigerian universities and three other laboratories, conducted in the year after the health problems emerged, indicate that the substance was toxic. All the tests confirmed poisonous concentrations of lead, zinc and mercury in the dumped substance.
“The presence of heavy metals at above acceptable limits and the unusually high concentration of ions make the substance toxic. Therefore, if these substances were to infiltrate the underground water or aquifer, it would have serious environmental and health implications,” says one of the reports. In the year and a half since the reports were released, many residents have fled the community to avoid illness from the waste contamination. But Shell has refused to respond to the community’s appeal to clean up the toxic mess. Rather, the oil company and the Nigerian government claim the substance is harmless. The Nigerian government even ran a newspaper ad saying its own test showed that “the substance had no obvious significant harmful impact on human and the immediate environment.” In an attempt to foreclose the controversy, the government described the advertisement as the “full and final report” on the waste’s toxicity.
Reports of environmental and human rights abuses by multinational oil companies operating in the Delta are common. And Shell is not the only corporation under fire. In one instance, six youths engaged to clear an oil spill from a pipeline belonging to the Italian Oil company Agip, were burnt to death while eleven others sustained seriously burns. “We were bailing the crude oil with buckets and our bodies were soaked with oil when suddenly there was fire,” says Reuben Eteyan who survived the incident.
In 2002, The Ubeji community in the Warri area of the Nigerian Delta State claims to have been viciously affected by more than a decade of oil production in their fragile mangrove habitat. Waste disposal and pollution by the Warri Refining and Petrochemicals Company (WRPC) have spoiled fishing and reportedly has caused a number of poisoning deaths among the Itsekiri people (related to the Yoruba) inhabiting these marginal areas between water and earth.
The structurally poor area has not received significant revenues from the large recourses taken off the Itsekiri’s ancestral lands. Their plea for environmental care was ignored for years. In the days of the military dictatorship, environmental protests by the Delta’s local population were met with police and military brutality.
Since that, WRPC and other oil companies have been objected to follow environmental management plans and pollution limits. Despite these restrictions, the Ubeji community however still holds that the pollution problem remains unsolved, expressing concern over the degradation of its natural environment and impacts on the local economy and human health. They claim WRPC doesn’t stick to its own environmental management plan.
Meanwhile, the Delta population is slipping further into marginalization. Without access to modern-sector employment, harvesting the delta’s natural resources remains the basis of livelihood and River Niger’s delta water is the main source of drinking water. Continuing pollution further depletes fish stocks and poisons the people drinking the water. The Itsekiri have reported of tens of “mysterious” deaths they relate to polluted water over the last decade, which still have not been investigated by the government.
The Warri Refinery along with the nearby Port Harcourt refineries is the largest oil refineries in Nigeria. Built in 1978, the Warri Refinery has a processing capacity of 125,000 barrels per day of crude oil. Its original process plant is believed to be defective, the result being frequent shutdowns, high running costs and constant oil spills into the delta.
Since inception of this organization, not many problems have been as intractable as those of the crippling environmental problems resulting from oil exploration and exploitation activities. This organization has watched with dismay the relative insensitivity and lack of transparency with which major stakeholders in the oil and gas industry attend to environmental issues. It is distressing to observe that over the years, mere lip service has often been paid to the problems of environmental pollution, degradation, river siltation, coastal erosion as well as extermination of wildlife, fauna and fiora which have become the fate of oil bearing communities in the Niger Delta sub-region.
Recent survey declared by the Environmental Rights Action has urged the Federal Government to declare the Niger Delta region a disaster zone. An emergency water supply network was also asked to be deployed immediately, to cater for its population. They also urged the government to order oil corporations to halt discharge of toxic wastes into Niger Delta waters. ERA also wants government to direct the corporations to commence detoxification of the whole Niger delta waters, while compensation is worked out for the years of pains that the pollutants have inflicted on the local communities.
A research conducted by the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Lagos, found a chemical, benzo (a) pyrene, an alternate polynuclear hydrocarbon, in water samples taken from 18 different sites in the Niger Delta. The chemical according to the researchers, in a report published in the Nigerian Quarterly Journal of Medicine, Vol 14, July-December, 2004, threatens the lives of the people through exposure to the skin, lungs, breast and abdominal cancer.
For several years, there has been criminal cover-up of the extent of the pollution. This is the first time a scientific conclusion that the oil companies have poisoned the Niger Delta waters and marine food is being made public. Government can no longer look the other way or feign ignorance. The culprits, Shell and other oil corporations should be held liable and victims adequately compensated.
The water samples taken from boreholes, wells, lagoons and beaches, showed a high concentration ranging from 0.43 to 4ug, far above the stipulated 0.7ug/1 for benzo(a) pyrene in drinking water by the World health organisation (WHO). The samples were taken from Olomoro, Okpe, Abraka, Afiesere, Uvwiamuge, Ekakpamre and Oleh communities in Delta State, as well as Siokolo community in Rivers State.
Many companies breach environmental protection laws with impunity only to lay the blame on host communities. While we strongly advice communities to be watchful of the activities of a few criminal elements in their midst, we sue for the cooperation of oil companiesto react promptly, especially at times of oil spill, instead of looking for scapegoats. This organisation will neither condone the criminal activities of saboteurs neither encourage insensitivity on the part of oil exploration companies.
We of the HNDC want the oil companies to:
A. carries out a proper identification and articulation of the oil-provoked environmental problems of the Niger Delta;
B. prepares a master plan and strategies for the remediation of the impacts of the identified problems;
C. restores the ecosystems to their pristine conditions;
D. adopts poverty alleviation measures that will help win over the support and confidence of the Niger Delta people.
Comrade Sunny Ofehe
President & Founder
Hope for Niger Delta Campaign, HNDC,