Ogoniland Oil Spills clean up will take up to 30 years

Ogoniland @UNEP
Ogoniland @UNEP

The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world's most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health. A major new scientific assessment, carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)[1], shows that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have supposed.


Over a 14-month period, the UNEP team collected more than 4,000 samples of soil, fish and air, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes and investigated, in depth, 69 of the many hundreds of oil spills in Ogoniland over the past 50 years. UNEP examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.


Oil exploitation in Ogoniland


Ogoniland is a region covering some 1,000 km² in the south-east of the Niger Delta basin. It has a population of close to 832,000, according to the 2006 National Census, consisting mainly of the Ogoni people. The region has witnessed recurrent social unrest during the past several decades over concerns related to oil industry operations and the distribution of its revenue. More than £30bn of oil has been extracted from the area but the majority of people are worse off than before the companies arrived.


Oil exploration in Ogoniland commenced in the 1950s and extensive production facilities were established during the following three decades. These operations were handled by Shell Petroleum Development Company (Nigeria) Ltd (SPDC), a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), Shell International, Elf and Agip. Environmental incidents, such as spills and uncontrolled flares, began in the area as soon as the operations began and responses were slow and inadequate. Partly in response to the environmental consequences of oil production, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was founded under the leadership of the Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa criticized oil companies and the government’s oil policy. In 1993 300,000 Ogoni joined a march to demand a share in oil revenues and greater political autonomy. As a consequence of the ensuing violence, oil exploration and production activities in Ogoniland ceased in the same year.


The study concludes that the control, maintenance and decommissioning of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland are inadequate. While no oil production has taken place in Ogoniland since 1993, the facilities themselves have never been decommissioned. Some oil pipelines carrying oil produced in other parts of Nigeria still pass through Ogoniland but these are not being maintained adequately. Consequently, the infrastructure has gradually deteriorated, through exposure to natural processes, but also as a result of criminal damage, causing further pollution and exacerbating the environmental footprint. As a consequence, even though oil operations have ceased in Ogoniland, oil spills continue to occur in alarming regularity.


Industry best practices and Shell’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public safety issues. Ten out of the fifteen investigated sites which Shell's records show as having completed remediation, still have pollution exceeding Shell's (and government) remediation closure values. The study found that the contamination at eight of these sites has penetrated to the groundwater. In January 2010, a new Remediation Management System was adopted by Shell. The study found that while the new changes are an improvement, they still do not meet the local regulatory requirements or international best practices.


The findings of the report


Pollution of soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, sediments and swampland. At two-thirds of the contaminated land sites close to oil industry facilities which were assessed in detail, the soil contamination exceeds Nigerian national standards, as set out in the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industries in Nigeria (EGASPIN).


As Ogoniland has high rainfall, any delay in cleaning up an oil spill leads to oil being washed away, traversing farmland and almost always ending up in the creeks. The impact of oil on mangrove vegetation has been disastrous. Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangrove -nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters - denuded of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick. Some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground and action to protect human health and to reduce the risks to affected communities needs to occur without delay. In one place, Ejama Ebubu, the study found heavy contamination from a spill that took place more than 40 years ago "despite repeated clean up attempts".


Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: the Shell Petroleum Development Company's own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues. The Ogoni community is exposed to hydrocarbons every day through multiple routes: in outdoor air and drinking water, sometimes in high concentrations. Hydrocarbon contamination was found in water taken from 28 wells in 10 communities adjacent to contaminated sites. At seven wells the samples are at least 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard. Local communities are aware of the pollution and its dangers but state that they continue to use the water for drinking, bathing, washing and cooking as they have no alternative.


At 41 sites, the hydrocarbon pollution has reached the groundwater at levels in excess of the Nigerian standards. The five highest concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons detected in groundwater exceed 1 million micrograms per litre (µg/l) - compared to the Nigerian standard for groundwater of 600 µg/l. The fisheries sector is suffering due to the destruction of fish habitat and highly persistent contamination of many creeks. Where entrepreneurs have established fish farms for example their businesses have been ruined by an ever-present layer of floating oil.

When an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult. At some sites, a crust of ash and tar has been in place for several decades.


The conclusions of the report


While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalyzing a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take 25 to 30 years. This work will require the deployment of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, improved environmental monitoring and regulation and collaborative action between the government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry.


Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said the report provided the scientific basis on which a long overdue and concerted environmental restoration of Ogoniland can begin. "The oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines," he said.


"It is UNEP's hope that the findings can break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland. In addition it offers a blueprint for how the oil industry - and public regulatory authorities - might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the Continent," said Mr Steiner.


The report suggests the creation of an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland, to be set up with an initial capital injection of US$1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government, to cover the first five years of the clean-up project. Environment groups and Ogonis welcomed the report but said $100bn was needed to clean up the entire delta, beyond just Ogoniland.


The urgent need for action is confirmed by other recent news coming from the Ogoniland. In August, Shell accepted full responsibility for two massive oil spills that occurred in 2008 and that devastated Bodo in Ogoniland where 69,000 people live and may take at least 20 years to clean up[2]. Experts say that the two spills could together be as large as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, when 10m gallons of oil destroyed the remote coastline. They believe that it could cost the company more than $100m to clean up properly and restore the devastated mangrove forests that used to line the creeks and rivers but which have been killed by the oil. Before last August, Shell had claimed that less than 40,000 gallons had been spilt. No attempt was made in 2008 to clean up the oil, which collected on the creek sides, washed in and out on the tides and seeped deep into the water table and farmland. Shell's change of mind and acceptance of full liability for the spills followed a class action suit of local communities in a British court. This could also set an important precedent for other communities in the delta to seek damages for oil pollution against Shell in the British courts.



Thomas Lazzeri

[1] UNEP, 2011, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland.

[2] 'Shell accepts liability for two oil spills in Nigeria', The Guardian, 03/08/2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/03/shell-liability-oil-spills-nigeria


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