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Government’s response to Oil Theft and illegal “bush refineries in the Niger Delta is worsening the environmental degradation in the region and putting many out of business, reports JETHRO IBILEKE who travelled to Edo, Delta and Bayelsa states.
Obruche Odjegba, a 67-year-old indigene of Aghalokpe, a small community in the rain forest region of Okpe local government area of Delta State, had been a farmer all his life. He cultivated crops both for his family’s consumption and for sale in the local market. Part of the proceeds from the sales had paid for the education of his children, some of them to the university level. His family members have always managed to get most things they need, and they lived happily until 2010 when the father of six was forcefully retired from his farm work. Now, he can no longer feed his family as his farming business has been paralysed as a result of the impact of the destruction of bush refineries.
Trouble started when some boys in the community secretly ventured into illegal oil bunkering. They allegedly scooped crude oil from ruptured oil pipelines, which they sold to make brisk money. The business was good; they made more money in few weeks than they had made all their lives. They decided to set up their own refineries to take their business to the next level, which they did within few weeks with help from their friends from other parts of the state that had been running their own refineries for several months. In no time, they began selling petroleum products refined from their bush refineries. That meant more money in their pockets. But farmlands, rivers and, indeed, the entire environment in the region began to suffer unprecedented pollution. Crops also began to wither, resulting in poor yield for farmers in the community, including Odjegba.
The bubble burst in 2012, when operatives of the Joint Task Force, code-named Operation Pulo Shield, discovered the illegal bush refineries in Aghalokpe and destroyed them by setting them ablaze, with crude oil still in the tanks. The environment suffered. The soil refused to give its yield. Things got worse for those peasant farmers and fishermen who depended on crops from their farms and fish caught from the local rivers for their livelihood. Their health also suffered.
Like Obruche, most farmers in the region are now hungry and angry as it has become more and more difficult for them to feed their families due to drastic reduction in farm yields. The reason: their lands have lost their nutrients and fertility; have become barren and poisoned as a result of oil spillages, fire and smoke emanating from the bush refineries and during their destruction by burning.
Fishermen in the riverine community of Gbaranmat, in Delta also suffered similar fate, like the farmers in Aghalokpe. Fishing business has been severely hampered in the villages of Makarava, Odidi in Gbaranmatu and in Ashafama forests, all in Warri South-West local government area of Delta state as the waters have become polluted by illegal oil activities, resulting in migration of the aquatic life in the river.
Also, the mangrove forests in these communities are gradually dying without hope of regeneration, apparently from heat radiation from flames and thick smokes of the bush refineries and from the destruction of the sites by the JTF, as could be seen in the photographs. Furthermore, land areas around the refineries have become so empty, dry and barren that one could easily mistake them for a black desert, with no form of crop cultivation possible there again.
Tonye Bralabo, a resident of Makarava who had been a fisherman all his life, lamented poor and decreasing fish catch from the river. According to the father of 13 children from three wives, due to the large quantity of fishes he caught in the past, people from as far away as Warri and Sapele come to buy from him in the local market. But the advent of illegal oil refinery and their subsequent destruction by authorities have adversely affected his fishing business and reduced his catch.
Jonah, a university graduate and breeder of cat fish in ponds dug along creeks in Oporoma, Bayelsa state where Illegal oil activities are also prevalent, lamented huge losses running into hundreds of thousands of naira he had incurred due to oil pollution of river water serving his ponds. He said lands in the region have been saturated with crude oil to the point that oil licks into his ponds both from the river water and from underground, killing his fish.
A look at accompanying photographs confirms Jonah’s claims. Most of the sites of bush refineries already saturated with crude oil to the point that it might take many years for vegetation to grow on them again.
Another aspect of the negative impact of illegal refinery and their destruction by burning is the health hazard. A random inquiry on the health of the people of Aviele in Edo north where illegal refining thrives and where many of such refineries have been destroyed indicated that a high number of the residents, especially young children, are prone to recurring respiratory tract infections. According to Dr. Taiwo Omosebi, a consultant at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, this might not be unconnected with poisonous gases emitted into the air from the refineries and during their destruction by burning. He said people exposed to such poisonous gases could suffer the same effects of direct smoking as the poisoned smokes could weaken their lungs and, invariably, makes them vulnerable to long term respiratory tract infections.
Domestic animals are other unlikely victims of illegal refineries. Investigation revealed that oil condensates have polluted vegetation in areas where illegal refineries thrive. Reports of this kind of pollution in parts of Ogbe Ijoh, near Warri, a loading point for illegally refined petroleum products, have been linked to the death of some domestic animals.
The discovery of crude oil at Oloibiri, in present day Bayelsa state in 1956, placed Nigeria among top exporters of crude oil countries in the world. Even though it remains difficult to quantify the number barrels of crude oil extracted in the country on a daily basis, the official figures we have are at best, guess estimate. When things are very good, Nigeria produces about 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day.
Sadly, however, rather than being a blessing, this natural endowment of liquid black gold appears to have turned out to be a curse to Nigeria, as the oil-rich Niger Delta continues to thrive in abject poverty due to oil theft and mass pollution of the environment occasioned by oil spillages, legal and illegal oil refining and, recently, destruction of illegal (artisanal refineries) by government’s Special Joint Task Force, with serious ecological, environmental and human impact, with many communities losing their farmlands and water sources to pollution. Several communities across the Niger Delta region where oil-related activities are carried out have suffered damages to their farmlands, the forests and water sources. Pollution from illegal refineries in Aviele community in Edo north has impacted negatively on sections of rice fields in the community, as rice farmers now experience poor and reduced yield.
According to the World-acclaimed environmental activist, Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF, the sudden rise in bush refineries in recent years could be traced to lack of employment opportunities for the teaming youths and the destruction of natural livelihood opportunities in the oil producing communities.
These are people who could have engaged in farming or fishing, who could have gotten jobs one way or the other, but now they don’t have any opportunities, the doors are shut in their faces, as many of them have lost their fishing and farming businesses to oil spillage and gas flaring. This is what has given rise to bush refineries.
“The second cluster of reason is the fact that in those oil fields where the crude is being mined you don’t always have access to petroleum products. If you go to the coastal area of the Niger Delta, you find very few outlets where you could buy petrol or diesel, and where you can find them, they are far more expensive than what you find in the cities. So there’s always a ready market for any product that could be used to run their boats and run their generators and businesses, and so the bush refineries have stepped in to fill the gap,” Bassey said.
Executive Director of African Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ, David Ugolor, is also of the opinion that destruction of the environment which is largely responsible for the livelihood of the people through seismic activities and oil exploration, is largely responsible for the advent of illegal bush refineries. He noted that even in view of its dangerous nature and the fact that their environment has been completely destroyed, these people have to survive. For instance; the streams and rivers where they go to fish to have access to proteins have been polluted. This has been confirmed by the scientific report carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP.
“Sixty to 80 per cent of the people of the Niger Delta depend on farming. But because of oil exploration, the major forests and vegetation have been badly destroyed as a result of seismic activities. People no longer have access to things that could sustain their lives,” Ugolor said.
A graphic description of operation of bush refinery reveals the inherent risk in the whole process.. A bush refinery is a Simple Modular Contraptions, SMC. It is made of a large galvanised drum which holds the crude oil and another galvanised tank resting on palm tree trunks raised higher than the larger tank, into which vaporised refined product is channelled into through a pipe.
Operating a bush refinery is one dangerous venture altogether, in which some of the operators have allegedly lost their lives in the process. Imagine the scenario: The larger drum holding the crude oil lies on combustible materials, drenched in petrol which is set alight from a considerable distance by somebody holding a fire touch tied to a long stick. Some of these people have allegedly died from explosions and radiation from the huge balls of fire which engulfs the tank and keep burning throughout the refining process.
The dangerous effects to the operators, the environment, the soil and animal population in the environment are apparent from this simple description of a bush refinery. This accounts for the notable depletion of vegetation wherever they thrive as a result of the intense heat from the fire and the oil, especially when such refineries are being destroyed by burning.
Commenting on the negative effects of destroying these bush refineries and their products on the environment and on humans, Bassey said, “These bush refineries are actually very poisonous to their own environments also because they are neither regulated nor standardised. They burn crude oil in the open, releasing massive amounts of dangerous chemical elements into the atmosphere, poisoning communities who live them, directly impacting negatively on the environment around them.
“The process of the bush itself refineries is highly polluting, their environments are extremely messy. It is unimaginable that Nigerians will work is such environments just for economic survival. It is something that ought to be addressed in a very decisive way.”
The federal government in efforts to check the economic loss suffered by the country to oil theft and bush refineries, set up the special military Joint Task Force (JTF), code named Operation Pulo Shield, to put these economic saboteurs out of business in the Niger Delta region. There is no gain saying that the hard work of the JTF has resulted in drastic reduction of the numbers of these illegal bush refineries across the states of the Niger Delta.
Media Coordinator of Operation Pulo Shield, Lt. Col. Mustapha Anka, in an interview, noted that this nefarious act became “widespread due to the activities of militants who blow up pipelines and other oil facilities releasing thousands of barrels of crude oil into the environment.”
He said the problem continued until the Federal Government decided in August, 2003, to establish the Joint Task Force Operation Restore Hope, which transmuted to Operation Pulo Shield in January 2012, after the amnesty granted the Niger Delta militants by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration.
According to him, despite the huge successes recorded by this Task Force, the problem is still occurring in states of the Niger Delta region. But the fight continues. Investigation revealed that the JTF carried out over 1,025 anti-illegal oil bunkering patrols in the year 2013, during which no fewer than 1,857 suspected oil thieves were arrested and 1,951 illegal refineries were destroyed. The outfit also impounded 81 barges, 1,117 Cotonou boats, 82 tanker trucks and 1,873 surface tanks, 39,760 drums of illegally refined petroleum products, 570 pumping machines and 75 outboard motor engines used as equipment to facilitate oil theft were seized and destroyed. Also, 46 vessels of various sizes and capacities were also arrested during the period.
Amongst methods employed in the destruction of illegal refineries are the use of swamp buggy in places where the criminals flee, which the JTC spokesman agreed are likely to be hazardous to the health of the people and the environment.
Kessington Obahiagbon, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Benin, noted that the level of pollution in the Niger Delta is so high because of the prevalence of these bush refineries. He said apart from the health implications, there is the problem of global warming and climate change due to the release of carbon 4 oxide which in a way, also goes as much as possible to deplete the ozone layer. There are also other noxious (very poisonous) gases that are released during the process of the refining, incomplete combustion, carbon 2 oxide (carbon monoxide) that are released to the environment.
“Of course we have some form of crude oil that may contain sulphur. We have hydrogen sulphate gas, sulphur 4 oxide gases. And when these things are liberated into the atmosphere, they get deposited in the atmosphere and when it rains, they come back to us as acid rain. And when you say acid rain, it also reflects on the rate of corrosion on vehicles. Under such environments, crops will not thrive, the soil becomes depleted in nutrients, because the soil is now covered up, there will be no penetration of oxygen, which means even earthworms and other tiny organisms that help nourish the soil will all die. Also, if there’s any river around the environment, it will get polluted and the fishes in such a river are killed. The aquatic life is also in danger,” Obahiagbon said.
He said the fact that the preoccupation of the people in the riverine area is fishing, it means that while operators of bush refineries are trying to satisfy their greed, they are indirectly engaging in self destruction when they end up polluting the environment, destroying the ecosystem, thereby destroying the food chain.
“Looking at the health implications, carbon monoxide is very dangerous to human. If you’re exposed to it, there’s a particular limit which is acceptable. Once you exceed that limit, it will replace oxygen in the blood stream and form carbon haemoglobin which can lead to sophistication when it builds up and the person will die. That is why you see people living in that environment suffering diseases like asthma and other diseases of the upper and lower respiratory tract infections. And their longitivity is drastically reduced,” he said.
Another health hazard inherent in bush refining of crude oil is, according to the Professor, that incomplete combustion can also lead to soot, which when breathed in could block the lungs and the airways and could lead to cancer a prolonged exposure to these chemicals. According to him, a lot of these crude oil products are carcinogenic, because they contain what is called poly aromatic hydrocarbon. This corroborates assertion by Nnimmo Bassey that the people of the Niger Delta region suffer the shortest lifespan in Nigeria.
Eric Tomfawei, an environmental scientist who works in the oil industry, described the idea of burning down illegal or bush refineries as rather dogmatic and uncivilised. He noted that burning down the impacts on the aquatic life and the vegetation in the area. The oil could also spill in the process. There’s also a situation whereby the oil goes directly into the water directly, which could pollute the mangrove due to the lasting impact if the poly aromatic hydrocarbon, called oil PAH, on the soil.
He said the terrestrial effect of burning down these refineries is so serious that the mangrove swamps around that place are all dead. So we have, not only the oil impacting on the environment. We also have the issue of temperature rising above normal as they burn down the refineries, which, in itself puts the wild lives at risk and at a very fast rate of extinction. Please note that wild life contributes a whole lot to the ecosystem, and once the chain is affected, be very sure that the remaining aspect of the ecosystem would also be affected.
“The ozone layer is also at risk. The ecosystem is seriously affected. The soil is also affected through the oil that goes down into it, the aquatic lives would be affected, plus the fact that humans which is the most important thing could lose their lives in the act,” Tomfawei explained.
Authorities of the JTF also expressed concern over the burning down the bush refineries. Lt. Col. Anka disclosed that the JTF was working in collaboration with oil companies to fashion out a more environment-friendly method of evacuating the seized product and returning same to the identified companies whose pipelines were ruptured to steal the product.
“Additionally, the Task Force embarked on advocacy campaign on the ugly menace in collaboration with oil producing states, oil companies, opinion leaders, traditional rulers, youths and other stakeholder,” he said.
Experts agreed on other alternative ways to destroy these illegal refineries without having to burn them down. Professor Obahiagbon agreed that Nigerians believe in brute force, and at times, but noted that brute force may not be able to solve the problem as destroying the refineries by burning will end up destroying the environment.
He advised that the military men should dismantle the bush refineries, and should not burn them, because burning them means they are also helping to contribute to the pollution of the environment. As they are destroying them, they are polluting the waterways and the soil.
That is also the thought of Nnimmo Bassey who noted that the manner of destruction by the JTF won’t solve the problem, but actually compounds the problem. He said for the fact that the refineries are Simple Modular Contraptions, SMC, it is easy to build. It is like a moving target. So burning them is a very inefficient way to tackle the problem.
The environmentalist said burning the bush refineries have direct impact on the ecology, the terrestrial and aquatic lives and the individuals and peoples living around these places who depend directly on water and other natural resources, thereby creating toxic situations, and the people eat fish laden with metals, for which reason he said the health and life expectancy in the Niger Delta is the lowest in Nigeria.
Successful removal of illegal bush refineries by the JTF is one thing, but sustaining it is another challenge. Experts agreed that government should create jobs for those young men and women and increase the value chain of agriculture in the region, because when there are more opportunities for young graduates to get jobs, non of them will embark on such risk.
Nnimmo Bassey also suggested legalising and regulating bush refinery by the government. Secondly, the refineries should be dismantle rather than bomb them, which he said is job for military engineers and not gun-carrying soldiers.
“If you find refineries that are not working according to standard, you dismantle them. These things can be carted away in boats, they are not massive installations, they are drums and pipes and sticks for fire. It is very rudimentary, very easy to dismantle and taken away. That should be the major thrust of dismantling the bush refineries. Bombing or burning should never be an option,” Bassey said.
Experts agreed that implementing recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011 would go a long way in the restoration of the Niger Delta region and reduction of illegal oil activities. The report which was commissioned by and delivered to the Federal Government of Nigeria, noted that halting further pollution and cleanup of all affected areas can only be achieved through multi-stakeholder action coordinated by the Federal Government. It therefore makes technical recommendations to the government, the oil and gas industry and communities to begin a comprehensive cleanup of the land with a view to restore polluted environments and put an end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination in the region, noted that the cleanup would require multi-stakeholder efforts coordinated by the Federal Government.
UNEP in it’s investigation discovered that crude oil theft, sabotage and illegal refining are the main sources of pollution in the Niger Delta today and accounted for 92 percent of oil volume spilled. “Incidents of oil theft and wilful damage continue to take place along the Trans-Niger Pipeline in Ogoniland, with severe impacts on the environment,” UNEP reported, just as it called for a coordinated effort between government, oil and gas companies and communities to bring an end to theft and illegal refining and urges communities to take a proactive stand against individuals and groups engaged in these activities.
The report further highlighted significant environmental impacts from oil pollution in parts of the Niger Delta relating to a variety of historical causes and ongoing crude oil theft, artisanal refining and other criminal activity. It called on the Nigerian government, the oil and gas industry and communities to begin a comprehensive cleanup of the region and take coordinated action to end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination.
The UNEP report presented a range of operational, technical, regulatory and behavioural recommendations addressed to the Federal Government of Nigeria, oil and gas operators and the communities. These recommendations are aimed at restoring the environment of polluted areas and addressing the causes of on-going contamination. The report also recommended eight emergency measures relating to water contamination in areas where there was assessed to be an immediate danger to public health.
The world environmental agency stressed that the majority of its recommendations can only be delivered through multi-stakeholder action coordinated by the Federal Government. Some of the most important recommendations on which the delivery of subsequent action depends, including the creation of an Environmental Restoration Authority and an Environmental Restoration Fund for the region, are directed at the Federal Government and require it to take the lead on coordinating the activities of the many stakeholders involved.
Finally, UNEP report noted that ensuring long-term sustainability is a much bigger challenge – one that will require coordinated and collaborative action from all stakeholders.
It is believed that if these suggestions made by the experts are employed by all stakeholders, it will go a long way in removing the menace of illegal bush refineries, halt the pollution created by illegal bunkering and the burning of illegal refineries and also save the environment, the ecosystem and human lives endangered by such activities and the billions of naira lost to illegality.
*This report was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting