Between Gulf of Mexico and Niger Delta

THISDAY Newspaper- Toyin Bashorun

As a growing child, youth or even an adult, we dread the pains that come with the consequences of ignorance, recklessness or plain carelessness. The pain usually ranges from the strokes of the cane we get from our parents or the resulting loss (like forfeited holiday, allowances or even more seriously, loss of academic year(s) in Secondary School or at the tertiary levels) we suffer, not to talk of a dismissal from employment or death in some grievous situations during adult life. The moral being an avoidance of a repeat experience at all cost.

This is becoming a paradox where the reoccurring oil spills in the oil rich area of South South Nigeria is concerned. It is no longer news that we have had several cases of damaged pipelines off shore, which have led to oil spills that have had terrible consequences on our aquatic life and the communities bordering the affected areas. The Koko incident, Niger Delta spill, the defiling of the now extinct Ogoni Land and the eventual death of the likes of Ken Saro Wiwa and many other inhabitants of the area are events very fresh in our memory.

The effect of oil spills on human and aquatic life remains ever so grievous and almost irreparable if not properly handled. Effective clean ups and reclamations of affected areas takes a very long time and it requires a lot effort and consistency.
Yet, since May 1, 2010 when another Exxon Mobil QIT terminal oil spill occurred, we have continued to trivialise the issue. Otherwise why will the Chair of the company responsible for the present oil spill in the said QIT terminal refer to the inhabitants of the area as “little people”? In fact the Managing Director was quoted in one of our daily news papers as saying that “the spill in May which we promptly reported…….the quantity is very small compared to any in the history of oil spill”. In other words the spill is so infinitesimal that it is not worth our attention.

Interestingly the May 1 spill is not the first, neither is it the second spill that has occurred in the past six months in the area; yet our Federal and State Governments have not taken the spill as seriously as one would expect. Mind you, oil spill in the South South is not novel. Examples have been drawn from the region during the debates on the way out of the Gulf of Mexico spill lately in far away Brussels and Copenhagen in the past couple of weeks. This means that the situation is of universal knowledge.
This writer’s team was in Akwa Ibom State last week to inspect the sites affected by this spill and it was disheartening to find that nothing substantial had been done. In fact we were able to take pictures of our findings, which show that the waters have continued to reflect the oil sheen surface attributable to oil pollution as a result of spillage.

The beaches in the area have their own tales of assault to tell.
If one must say, the presence of the oil sheen in the water is a sign that the oil has affected the aquatic state of the waters and as such aquatic life, flora and funa inclusive have been starved of necessary oxygen; they are presumably dead. The photographs illustrating this write up speak for themselves.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time Exxon Mobil (or Mobil oil Company as the case may be), has been responsible for the oil spill in this area. The Niger Delta area oil spill of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s which resulted in untold damage extending to all the coastal areas including Lagos and Benin Republic etc. is still fresh in our minds.

In fact, the company had to pay so much as compensation, after a very long and tortuous legal battle. This writer supposes that since the price paid for Exxon Mobil’s “Sin” at the time was not commensurate with the resulting impact of their actions on the environment, they failed to learn a bitter lesson; a repeat was soon to follow.
Otherwise how do you explain the fact of the reccurring leakage and consequent spill from this OIT terminal near Ibeno in Akwa Ibom State? This is not to talk of the insensitive utterances of the company’s executives.
The most painful aspect of this matter is the apparent ignorance demonstrated in the form of hostilities by the people of the community, towards those who went to access the situation. The Governor’s team who went to access the damage was chased away with clubs and machetes.

In fact, the writer’s team had to do their job in disguise. The community prefers to haggle about monetary compensation instead of allowing a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the damage presently. Our authorities’ passive response to the entire situation also leaves much to be desired.
Talking matter of factly, one should not expect more from Exxon Mobil considering they are located in the South South area of Nigeria where human rights abuses of this special kind are the order of the day. After all, save for the Harmful Waste (Special Provisions Etc.) Act Cap H1 Law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 2004, there is no other strict liability law in place one can say.
If we handle oil spills with kid’s gloves, how do we plan to handle gas leak? There are reports of gas pipe leaks in the Bayelsa area as of now.

Oh! If only we can imitate the American response to the Gulf of Mexico BP America oil spill saga. The white house has not only relocated to Louisiana, President Obama has his sleeves rolled up ready to handle the matter personally. The Chief Executive officer of BP oil has his arms up and is in tears considering that BP oil is not likely to survive the onslaught of the American government.
As at the time of this write up, the Chief Executives of BP Oil America are getting set to face the American Congress, especially the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. They will also face the Sub-committee on Oversight and Investigations since they are mandated to consider the effects of the April 20 2010 explosion of the deep water Horizon oil rig belonging to BP

In fact Mr. Hayward, BP’s CEO, who was reported to have made insensitive comments a few days ago, has retracted his initial statements in very apologetic terms. He was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that he is devastated by the explosion of the deepwater Horizon oil rig and understands the anger that Americans feel towards him and his company.
Of course being an election year for some congressmen, Congress is not taking the matter lightly. President Obama realises the damage this spill can do to his re election bid should he fail to handle this matter satisfactorily.
What can we say, for ourselves at this time? Were the Chief Executives of Exxon Mobil to be in the United States would they have made the comments credited to them in the media?

It is important to stress that if the spill is not addressed and contained promptly, it will spread to Lagos and beyond; then we will appreciate the dangers this grievous situation portends.
If only we can learn a bitter lesson from the past experiences in the Koko area, Ogoni land, the Creeks of the Niger Delta, etc.
As it were, the National Environmental Standards, and Regulations Enforcement Agency Act (NESREA 2007) does not apply to the Oil and Gas sector. See Sections 7 & 8 of the Act. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency Act (FEPA Act) which does apply to the sector and is more apt in the present circumstances has been repealed. The Federal Ministry of Environment is fast becoming a toothless bull dog. Little wonder the result of the round table meetings held by the said Ministry with the offending company presently.

For instance, section 8(e), (f) & (g) provides as follows:
The Agency shall have power to-
(e) Conduct field follow-up of compliance with set standards and take procedures prescribed by law against any violator;
(f) Subject to the provisions of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, and in collaboration with relevant judicial authorities establish mobile courts to expeditiously dispense cases of violation of environmental regulations;
(g) Conduct public investigations on pollution and the degradations of natural resources, except investigations on oil spillage;
The provisions of sections 1, 2, and 12 of the Harmful Waste (Special Criminal Provision Etc) Act Cap H1 laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 2004 which is impari materia with section 8 quoted above is enough provisions to assure a proper handling of this precarious situation. That is if we have learnt our bitter lesson.
The pertinent question now is who will enforce these provisions? It looks as if no one is prepared to take the bull by the horn.
One wonders what standards and regulations the relevant environmental monitoring departments have come up with since the promulgation of the NESREA Act in 2007 in this regard? Unfortunately they have had to tread cautiously since the oil and gas sector has been excluded from their jurisdiction.
If anything, the Ministry of Environment may do well to start campaigns which will enlighten the people in the affected areas in this respect. At least S.7 of the NESREA Act allows this. The Section provides:
Functions of
The Agency. 7. The Agency shall—
(l)create public awareness and provide environmental education on sustainable environmental management, promote private sector compliance with environmental regulations other than in the oil and gas sector and publish general scientific or other data resulting from the performance of its functions;
This brings to mind the question whether anyone has gone to confirm the assertion by Exxon Mobil that it had cleansed the affected waters and creeks i.e. site of the pollution in question. The writer’s team can inform Nigerians for free that nothing appreciable has been done. The photographs confirm this fact.
When are we going to learn our bitter lesson?
•Ms Bashorun specialises in Environmental Law


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