Many promises, less action for Chevron host communities

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Mike Odiegwu

The January 16, 2012 explosion of a wellhead belonging to Chevron Nigeria Limited seems to be a blessing in disguise for the impacted communities in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. This is because at no period in the chequered history of the people had their island, located close to the Atlantic Ocean, attracted top government functionaries the way it has done in recent times.

While some persons had visited the islands with selfish motives of scoring cheap political points, others went there with genuine intentions of finding solutions to the plight of the ravaged and impoverished oil communities. Even the former acting governor of the state, Mr. Nestor Binabo, despite his brief stay in office, visited the area and read the Riot Act to oil multinationals, including Chevron, the culprit.

He threatened to take legal action against the company — a pledge that was applauded by chiefs and youths in the communities. But at the end, he left office without taking practical steps to cushion the effects of the explosion. After Binabo’s visit, the communities continued with their outcries.

The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke, in company with her entourage, also visited the communities. She arrived at the beleaguered communities on a chopper and hovered around the burning rig before meeting with the people. She was, however, silent on the impact of the incident on the environment and health of the communities. Again, after her departure, the traumatised communities did not fare better.

The people say the gas emission has killed the fish in their rivers and affected their means of livelihood. So, they depend on iced fish bought by those who could afford to pay over N5,000 fare to get to Yenagoa, the state capital.

They complain that the pollution had affected their source of drinking water, while lamenting cases of skin irritation, difficulty in breathing and other forms of diseases recorded in the communities after the blowout.

Following the development, the deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, Rear Admiral John Jonah (retd) who represented his boss, Mr. Seriake Dickson, toured the affected areas on a speedboat to assess the damage.

Decrying the level of environmental pollution suffered by the communities, Jonah said, “It is nostalgic, especially when one sees the fishing settlements. They remain the same as they used to be in those days, as nothing seems to have changed. However, one thing that has changed is that the environment has suffered and is still suffering much pollution.

“In those days the environment was not polluted and we had things as natural as they were created. And this is where we are concerned, because the environment is dying slowly at our expense. And we need to do something about it.”

He insisted that oil companies should apply the same standards obtainable in their home countries to Nigeria. He observed that the pollution was capable of leading to slow death among the residents, promising that government would respond to all the issues after proper investigations.

“One thing is clear, and that is the fact that the same laws that govern the oil industry in the home countries of oil companies apply here; it cannot be different. So, if what we are experiencing now is wrong in America where Chevron comes from, it is wrong here too. This should be the standard and we should not expect anything less,” Jonah said.

Irked by the development, the Bayelsa State House of Assembly passed a two-point resolution calling on the Federal Government and Chevron to immediately send relief materials and medical team to all the communities affected by the incident.

The lawmakers also called on the company to, as a matter of urgency, put out the fire and clamp all spills from its facility. They further asked Chevron to pay adequate compensation to all the affected communities, regretting that nothing significant had been done to alleviate the suffering of the people.

The lawmakers observed that due to hunger, the people were forced to eat contaminated fish. They were unanimous in condemning the activities of oil multinationals operating in the state, regretting that the law had debarred state assemblies from legislating on such matters.

Finally, the most important visitor, President Goodluck Jonathan, arrived at the communities on February 27 – about two months after the incident. Though the people were angry that it took the President who hails from the state a long time to visit, they were satisfied that their lamentation had brought Jonathan to the island, believing that his presence would end their plight.

The President assured the impacted people of Koluama of the government readiness to address the environmental problems. He directed the National Emergency Management Agency to distribute relief materials to all the communities affected by the explosion, while commending them for their peaceful conduct despite their problems.

While agreeing that Chevron should pay compensation to the affected communities, the President said such compensation would be determined by the outcome of investigations to ascertain the extent of damage done by the explosion. He stressed that oil multinationals lacked the capacity to employ everybody from oil producing communities. He, however, directed Allison-Madueke to liaise with Chevron on the issue of employment for the indigenes of the affected communities.

Despite the President’s promises, the affected communities are worried that the high-profile visits have not translated into significant economic gains. Two weeks after Jonathan’s visit, the communities, in a statement signed by the King of Koluama 1, J.T.C. Leghemo said, “The members of the various communities are worried because little or no assistance has come their way, either from Chevron or government, to alleviate our suffering since the incident, despite the visits and the promises.”

But the communities may have heaved a sigh of relief on March 6 when the chopper of the Presidential Adviser on Niger Delta Matters, Mr. Kingsley Kuku, landed on the island. Kuku, who came on the orders of the President, described the explosion as the worst in the history of hazards in oil and gas industry.

Speaking in the same vein as did earlier visitors, Kuku decried the attitude of oil companies in the region, saying he was directed by President Goodluck Jonathan to commence skill acquisition programme for youths and women of the impacted communities.

After assessing the damage done to the environment by the explosion, he acknowledged that the spill had polluted the source of drinking water in the communities, observing that the people of the area had been denied their means of livelihood.

He faulted the initial claims by Chevron that the emitting gas was not hazardous and asked the company to take responsibility for the incident instead of making excuses.

“When I heard about the gas well blowout and the usual complaint of oil multinationals, I was very bitter. It is a sophisticated gas explosion that is the worst in the history of hazards in oil and gas in the entire world.

“I have gone round the entire environment before I landed and I have seen how the rivers were all gone. I have seen that you can no longer drink from the water. You can no longer swim in the river. I saw very thick level of spillage in the entire river. The explosion is hazardous to the community and the entirety of Ijaw land and it must be treated the same way,” he said.

He said the Federal Government should also take part of the responsibility, adding that as part of measures to alleviate the suffering of the communities, Jonathan had directed that youths and women should be empowered through skill acquisition programmes.

“Chevron and the Federal Government must treat this as a hazard to humanity. We must share the burden of dealing with the issues. Chevron must take its responsibility and the Federal Government must take its responsibility,” Kuku said.

Reading Mr. President’s message to the community, Kuku said Jonathan had “directed his office to visit the eight impacted communities, explore opportunities of training and manpower development for the people.”

Though the inferno caused by the explosion went off after 46 days, the communities and the company are at loggerheads over claims by community leaders that unplugged hoses under the collapsed rig have continued to spill gas into the river.

As Chevron’s host communities grieve over the damage done to their environment, they, however, wait desperately for all their august visitors to fulfill their promises.


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