Nigeria Oil Spill Catastrophic

The air smells like poison, the creek water carpeted with crude, and the boat operator covers his nose as he steps on a jetty in a region hit by what may be the world’s worst oil contamination.

“We have been living with this mess for years,” says 31-year-old Friday Gimmogho, who is now forced to drive his boat out to sea to catch fish. “The oil companies are simply irresponsible and wicked.”

The UN released a report this month saying decades of oil spills in the Nigerian region of Ogoniland may require the biggest cleanup ever undertaken, with communities dependent upon farmers and fishermen left ravaged.

As a start, it calls for $1 billion from the Nigerian government and the petroleum industry in Africa’s largest oil producer.

Drinking water has been dangerously contaminated, including at one location where levels of the carcinogen benzene are more than 900 times above World Health Organisation guidelines.

Families were still drinking from those wells in Nisisioken Ogale, the report from the UN Environment Programme points out.

“If you drink this water, it tastes like petrol,” said Austin Kpalap, a 31-year-old pharmacy student and local resident.

“We used to do everything with it — drank it, bathed with it and washed with it — until UNEP said it was not safe.”

While UNEP’s chief scientist has called the environmental crisis “unprecedented,” it has largely gone unnoticed, unlike last year’s massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to hefty payouts from BP.

In this case, Shell and Nigeria’s state oil company have come under heavy criticism over the contamination.

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant operated in Ogoniland until it was forced to pull out amid unrest in 1993, but it still has infrastructure there. It argues it is not responsible for most spills.

Shell’s Nigerian joint venture was taken to task in the UN report, which says its procedures for control and maintenance of infrastructure have not been followed. Oil spills have also not been sufficiently cleaned, the report says.

Shell says it is taking the report seriously and looking at how it can improve, but maintains that more than 70 percent of the spills in the vast Niger Delta, Nigeria’s main oil-producing region and where Ogoniland is located, are caused by sabotage.

The managing director for its Nigerian joint venture, Mutiu Sunmonu, has said that until illegal activity is brought under control, “there is little that can be done to bring an end to the problem of spills.”

Oil theft and illegal refining to feed the black market, as well as militant attacks on pipelines, have been common in the Niger Delta.

But activists strongly dispute Shell’s argument, and a UNEP representative points out that illegal refining is a more recent phenomenon in an area that has seen 50 years of spills.

Meanwhile in Ogoniland, a kingdom with an estimated population of nearly one million, mangrove swamps soak in a stew of toxins.

Farmland sits in ruin and anger continues to build in the native region of renowned environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 after what was widely viewed as a show trial.

In the town of Bodo, residents cover their noses with their hands or handkerchiefs as they approach the jetty. At nearby B-Dere village, people lament what has been lost.

“As far back as 1992, 1993, 1994, I used to follow my father to this place for fishing, but now the fish are gone because of spillage,” local politician Kposbae Ereba told AFP. “What you see is water covered with crude.”

UNEP senior official Henrik Slotte told AFP the report was the most complex ever handled by the agency. It has detailed for the first time scientific evidence of the contamination in Ogoniland.

“This contamination requires emergency action before any other remediation efforts to reduce the health risk to the people,” he said.

Amnesty has estimated that, if all types of oil pollution in the vast Niger Delta are added up over the past half-century, it would be “on par with the Exxon Valdez every year over the last 50 years.”

“Oil companies have turned this land into a desert through their operational neglect,” local conservationist Michael Kobah said.

There have been mixed feelings in Ogoniland following the report. It has raised hopes for some that something may finally be done to address the problem — and that locals will find jobs linked to the cleanup.

Others doubt further action will result.

“We didn’t need any report,” said Ledum Mitee, president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People and Saro-Wiwa’s former deputy. “What is needed is a clean-up.”

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