Poor oil spill clean-up methods affect Niger Delta communities

A few days after villagers in Kedere in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region noticed oil seeping from the pipe that runs beside the village, a few boys from the village went out with shovels, dug pits a few feet deep, scooped the oil into the ground and burned it, finally covering it with sand.

“During the dry season, it looks nice,” Anyakwee Nsirimovu, director of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt, told IRIN, describing the simple process which he said is a common spill clean-up tactic in the region.

The environmental damage caused by such poor clean-up methods could be disastrous, Emmanuel Emmanuel, an environmental scientist in Port Harcourt, said. “Oil does not burn at 800 degrees Celsius,” he explained, “so when you burn it, you just flare off the volatiles and gas. The dense crude remains… One drop of rain and you see the black spots,” he said.

Across Kedere and similar villages in the region, evidence of the damage is readily apparent in the oil sheen on the soil and water.

“The land is devastated. The drinking water and streams are polluted. As it rains, we use the rain water but cannot drink it, because even that is full of crude oil,” youth leader Amstel Monday Ebarakpor told IRIN.

“At every groundwater intrusion, you see seepage. Sometimes you can see oil sheen on drinking water,” he told IRIN. “Crude will be there for the next 50 years.”

Abandoned oil spill sites


Photo: Dulue Mbachu/IRIN
Environmental damage from an oil spill in Kegbara-Dere in the Ogoni district of the Niger Delta. Residents say the spill is more than 10 years old and has not been cleaned up


On 25 January the chairman of the government’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Bamidele Ajakaiye, told Nigeria’s Senate Committee on Environment and Ecology that there are 1,150 abandoned oil spill sites in the Niger Delta region. Many, communities say, are cleaned like the one in Kedere - if at all.

Oil companies and communities disagree on why there are so many spills in the Niger Delta.

A joint investigation team from the federal, state, and local governments, as well as the community and oil companies, is supposed to decide whether a spill is caused by decaying facilities, human error, or vandalism. When third party interference is the case, oil companies are not required to compensate the community for damaged land.

Shell and Eni, the two companies with the most on-the-ground coverage attribute most of the spills to “bunkering” - the highly dangerous and illegal practice of people breaking into pipes to tap some of the oil which they can sell on the black market.

Activists say those figures are too high, and that aging oil facilities are more to blame. “The pipelines are as old as oil operations,” environmental scientist Emmanuel said.

“[The companies] have only recently started doing replacements so the pipes are corroded. Many are on the surface and under pressure 24 hours a day carrying crude oil.”

Irresponsible local contractors?

Regardless of the cause, companies are required to notify the Nigerian government within 24 hours, and oil spills are to be cleaned up immediately, an obligation oil companies say is often impossible.

“As in previous years, some communities denied [us] access to spill sites, restricting our ability to respond and clean up spills in good time,” Shell said in its 2006 annual report.

''You cannot deal with [oil spills] using illiterate people with nothing in their heads about pollution and [no knowledge of[ how to deal with an issue that is deeply scientific''

Shell Media Relations Officer Caroline Wittgen explained that when clean-up does take place, Nigerian law requires that clean-up jobs be awarded to local contractors. “Contracts are awarded to Nigerian contractors provided they possess the technical capability to handle the jobs,” she told IRIN.

Bari-Karap Moi, spokesman for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, said local contractors often hire unqualified and ill-equipped youth to do the work. “You cannot deal with [oil spills] using illiterate people with nothing in their heads about pollution and [no knowledge of] how to deal with an issue that is deeply scientific,” he told IRIN.

Most spills in Kedere are cleaned up by the basic practice of scooping oil into pits, burning it, and sealing the holes, he said. Community leaders from villages around Port Harcourt tell the same story.

Idris Musa, deputy director of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, said the ideal method to clean on-land spills is by using pits to contain the spill and vacuum trucks to later clean out the crude. “Burning is not encouraged,” he told IRIN.

“Cleaning of an oil spill is not a low-tech thing. The community does not have the materials.”

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