Niger Delta pollution: Fisherman at risk amidst the oil

From Will Ross at the BBC on May 30, 2013:

A “pristine paradise” – these are not words you often hear to describe the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria. But you get to appreciate the area’s natural beauty whilst wading across lily covered creeks and trekking deep into the forest, accompanied by birdsong.

Welcome to the Niger Delta before the oil. “I’m on the plank now so walk right behind me,” a guide said as we squelched across a muddy swamp trying not to sink in too deep. After walking for about an hour and a half from the village of Kalaba in Bayelsa state, I caught the first glimpse of an expansive tranquil lake through the trees. On the shore are shelters made of wooden poles draped in material. Every two years several families set up a camp at Lake Masi where they fish for just three months.

Fishermen empty bucket of fish

“After preparing the nylon and woven basket nets we go into the lake and drive the fish into one area,” Woloko Inebisa told me. “By fishing every two years we allow the fish to grow large. If we fished every year there would only be very small fish here,” the 78 year old told me as two men in dug out canoes adjusted the nets inside a section of the lake that had been fenced off with cane reeds.

Smoke drifted across the camp as women dried the fish over home made grills above smouldering fires. “I will use this money to pay my children’s school fees, to buy books for them, to buy their school uniforms and to do everything for them,” said mother-of-three Ovie Joe. When these families return to their villages they will continue to grow crops but will have raised some capital from the fishing season. “We have water for drinking and plenty of fish. But I’m not just here to feed my stomach – I’ll save up money for when I go back to the village,” Mr Inebisa said.

Just a few kilometres away near Taylor Creek is a very different picture. An oil spill from June 2012 has left the ground covered in a dark sludge and the trees are all blackened by fire.

Niger Delta fisherman carries net laden with fish out of a creek

Environmentalists believe local contractors often pay youths to set fire to the area where the spill has occurred. This can reduce the spread of the oil but has other detrimental effects on the environment. Despite extensive flooding late last year the oil has not dispersed and there are still signs of the rainbow sheen on the surface.

Your ears also tell you all is not well – there is hardly any birdsong as the pollution has sucked the life out of the area. “When I walked here the crude oil was spilling out so fast I couldn’t even get near the spill point itself,” said Samuel Oburo, a youth leader from Kalaba.

Running through this area is an underground pipeline belonging to Nigeria AGIP Oil Company – which is partly owned by the Italian oil giant, Eni.

Map of Nigeria

It says numerous leaks near Taylor Creek were all caused by people breaking into the pipe – sabotage.

On 23 March Eni issued a statement announcing the closure of all its activities in the area because the theft of oil, known as bunkering, was so rife. “The decision was made due to the intensified bunkering, consisting in the sabotage of pipelines and the theft of crude oil, which has recently reached unsustainable levels regarding both personal safety and damage to the environment,” the statement read. People in the village suggest corroded pipes as a possible trigger of the spill and they doubt it was caused by sabotage.

The breaking of pipes and theft of the oil is so rampant in the Niger Delta that experts believe several interest groups are involved. “There is a high level conspiracy between the security forces, the community and oil workers to steal the oil,” says environmental campaigner Erabanabari Kobah. “That is why people are not prosecuted and convicted even though the crime is happening at an alarming rate,” he says.

There is very little transparency when it comes to the awarding of contracts to clean up any oil spills.

Jeti Matikmo, fisherman carrying a pole on his shoulder with bundles of fish

This has led to increased incidents of sabotage as some believe the more oil spills there are the more money there is to share around. The pollution is having a terrible impact on the environment. “There is oil here. We are suffering,” said Jeti Matikmo, carrying a pole on his shoulder on which bundles of fish were tied. “Many of our crops are not growing well because of the oil spill and we are not killing fish in the ponds anymore. So we have to trek for more than two hours to where it is clean and where there is no oil.”

Back at Lake Masi a crowd gathered as two men waded ashore dragging an enormous woven basket behind them. It was heavy with fish. “There’s nothing like pollution here. Although if the oil prospecting companies come they may find oil and all that could change,” said Mr Inebisa. “If this pond is polluted, hunger is the answer,” he said adding that in his entire life he had not gained a single coin from the oil of the Niger Delta.

Dutch court rules mostly in favor of Shell

Four Nigerian farmers of the Goi and Oruma villages, supported by the Dutch NGO Friends of the Earth and the local Environmental Rights Action, sued Royal Dutch Shell in the Dutch District Court of The Hague for four oil spills between 2004 and 2009. This past Wednesday, the court ruled that the oil spills were caused by sabotage, and that Royal Dutch Shell is not liable towards 3 of the 4 farmers. It dismissed the claims of the Friends of the Earth. The court’s decision would support the idea that much of the Niger Delta pollution is caused by criminal activity carried out by locals, which has been the argument of  oil companies defending their role in the environmental damage there.

The court did find that the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), a Nigerian subsidiary, could have prevented the sabotage in one case by plugging up the well but then acknowledged that the SPDC subsequently contained the leak. Nevertheless, Shell has been ordered to pay compensation to one farmer and has agreed to do so.

The verdict is not necessarily a total defeat for Niger Deltans.  Although the farmers did not prevail, the case does establish that cases against Dutch companies for misdeed abroad can be heard in Dutch courts. Friends of the Earth announced that the case was intended as a test and that the organization is satisfied by the precedent. The case been followed closely by those who have been interested in the Saro-Wiwa and Kiobel rulings.

Read details of the ruling here.

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Corporate Fines and Settlements (BP, Shell, and Exxon)

Corporate Fines and Settlements (BP, Shell, and Exxon)

You might want to click on it to enlarge it, but this infogram demonstrates the largest corporate fines and settlements for the last seven years. I am most interested in the disparity among the oil companies. Exxon-Valdez paid $507 million in fines for its 1989 spill in Alaska (which has not been totally cleaned up yet). This is just 11% of its annual earnings. In contrast, the BP Gulf of Mexico spill cost that corporation 110% of its annual earnings, and rightly so. I would attribute this to heightened environmental sensitives regarding environmental damage in the U.S. However, unless I am not interpreting it correctly, the display also says that Shell paid 6% of annual earnings to settle a Niger Delta case in 2000. Perhaps we have different sources of data, but Shell’s earnings in 2006 were $25.36-25.44 billion and not just over 26 billion, but I suppose when analyzing such an absurd profit that doesn’t make much difference. My main point is that the well-known Wiwa settlement occurred in 2009, not 2000, and it was for $15.5 million, not $1.5 billion. This large discrepancy means the settlement was actually a mere .004% of annual earnings, not 6%. To put that in perspective, the Shell corporation earns about $2.5 million per hour, so they worked off the irreversible destruction of millions’ of farmers and fishermen’s land in just over 6 hours.