INVESTIGATION…Inside Nigeria’s oil-rich community where Agip breaks the law, endangering lives and livelihood of residents
The ICIR reporter, Amos ABBA visited Azuzuama, in Bayelsa State where oil spills from pipelines belonging to Agip persistently occur without a commensurate remediation effort from the oil firm to clean up the affected sites.
ESTHER Godspower, 22, gave birth to her second child in April but the occasion did not call for celebrations.
The exhausting hours she had spent on sessions with local midwives on how to take care of her baby, and the money spent on baby’s clothes and accessories suddenly became wasted.
“I was expecting the midwives to put the baby in my arms when I delivered but the expressions on their faces explained everything to me. The sacrifices I made during pregnancy to ensure I gave birth to a healthy child just seemed a waste,” she told The ICIR.
Esther gave birth to a baby who died barely an hour after delivery but she has no idea why the child died because she didn’t give birth in the hospital. The traditional midwives who attended to her also had no explanations to give her.
“I was depressed for several weeks with the thought that I had a baby who just died suddenly without any sign of illness, it took me a while to recover from that shock,” she said.
Esther’s tragedy is familiar to other mothers in Azuzuama, a pollution hotspot of crude oil spills in Southern Ijaw local government area of Bayelsa State, but since the community is without a functional hospital there are no medical answers to this problem.
However, researchers at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland may have answers for women in the community.
A 2017 study carried out by Anna Bruederle and Roland Hodler which focused on the local effects of oil spills in the Niger Delta revealed that children born within 10 kilometres of an oil spill were twice as likely to die in their first month. Esther lives less than 10 kilometres to the site of a major oil spill in the community.
The study compared the health status of children born after a spill and their siblings born before a spill with its conclusion that the chances a baby dies within the first 28 days of life within 10 kilometres of oil spill site are high.
Esther’s experience captured in the research is not different from mothers in other communities where oil spill occurs regularly, whose babies die shortly after they are born.
A large-scale problem
Azuzuama in Bayelsa State is one of the host communities to Nigerian Agip Oil Company, NAOC where Oil Mining Lease, OML 63, its largest oil field in Nigeria in terms of acreage, is located.
The oil-rich community has been a money-spinning haven for Agip since 1978 when it started its oil production but Azuzuama does not share from its success story.
Statistics from the Ministry of Environment in Yenagoa revealed that from January 2013 to April 2017, a total of 1,031 oil spill incidents had occurred on pipelines belonging to Agip in Bayelsa State, an equivalence of over 20, 550 barrels of crude oil.
Azuzuama shares the bulk of the pipeline ruptures with 900 cases recorded by the Joint Investigation team carried out by a team comprising the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, an agency charged with ensuring compliance to environmental legislation in the petroleum sector, Ministry of Environment and Agip officials who assessed the impacted sites.
It also revealed that 431 impacted areas were expected to be cleaned up or remediated by Agip to prevent the spill from posing a potential risk to the health and livelihood of people in those areas.
However, the pollution of the ecosystem in Azuzuama by Agip’s oil activities has continued unabated for years without the intervention of environmental regulatory agencies mandated to regularly carry out inspections.
When The ICIR visited several spill sites in the community, mostly from Agip’s Azuzuama’s export pipeline, the sites were not cleaned up and where cleanups were carried out, crude oil extracted from the river was disposed on vegetation.
Other oil spill sites which the reporter accessed barefooted had pools of crude oil which had not been cleaned up for months, others for years.
Gibson Isedirikonghen, a teacher in the community told The ICIR how the spills have been destroying their source of livelihood.
“There are several onshore sites where there have been oil spills for years, but Agip has nothing to clean them up. So, what we do is leave those sites and move to where the oil has not affected. If you have farmland that is affected by the spill it means you have to start looking for an alternative source of income other than farming or get another parcel of land,” he said.
He lamented about the frequent contamination of the river from the spill sites that were not cleaned whenever it rains.
“Whenever it rains, crude oil from those spill sites flows from the mangrove forests into the river which is very dangerous to us. It’s poisonous because the smell is choking apart from the other toxic effects on our body. When you inhale it, your body system reacts badly to crude oil. It’s terrible,” he said.
However, data obtained from the Nigerian Oil spill monitor, a website run by NOSDRA which keeps track of oil spills in the country shows that there are over 1,000 spill sites in Bayelsa State but there are no details or information about cleanups or remediation carried out by the oil firms – Agip included–that is listed on the portal.
Between a rock and a hard place
Mabel Theophilus carefully slides down her eight-month-old baby strapped to her back and lays him on a local mat while she washes the fishing nets she had used for catching fish.
For the twenty eight year old, single mother of two who had been fishing in Azuzuama creeks in Southern Ijaw local government area of Bayelsa state for over ten years, the stinging throat and constant headaches she feels whenever she inhales air around sites where there is an oil spill has always been the worst effects of crude oil spills she had encountered.
In January, her three-year-old daughter, Natasha, had a strange strain of rashes on her body. Mabel told The ICIR she started noticing it after bathing her consistently with water from the river that is frequently contaminated with crude oil leaking from compromised oil pipelines in the community.
Mabel knew it was risky bathing her baby with the contaminated water, but she did not expect a skin disease could result from it.
“Whenever I bathe Natasha with water from the river or she swims in the water she always complains of itching on her body but I always thought it would go away when she uses the water consistently,” she said. She was wrong.
The rashes had spread to every part of Natasha’s body disfiguring her skin, leaving scars on her from head to toes.
Mabel took her to the Azuzuama health clinic but the medical personnel at the facility were not trained to handle such cases so she resorted to herbal remedies for cure which worsened Natasha’s condition.
When asked why she has not taken her daughter to the hospital in Yenagoa the capital city.
She explained that the exorbitant costs involved in getting orthodox treatment for her daughter were beyond her means as her fishing business is becoming less lucrative due to the frequent oil spills contaminating the river.
“I will set traps in the river for days but what I catch cannot sustain the family for a day, the fish are no longer in the water as before, and when I can’t feed my small family is it hospital bills we’ll be talking about,” she asked in a distressed voice.
Speaking further, she said, “The transport cost from Azuzuama to Yenagoa by boat is ₦3,500, which means I have to spend more than ₦10,000 only on transportation, apart from the hospital charges which I can’t afford currently because my fishing business is no longer as lucrative as before because of oil spillages.”
Though, a medical expert has not closely examined Natasha and diagnosed her case properly, Mabel is taking her chances with the fate that Natasha will be cured miraculously.
“I am praying that this strange skin rash should disappear because I don’t have money to spend on sickness when we have not eaten properly,” she said.
Her plight mirrors the struggles of residents in Azuzuama community whose attention to their health condition depends on their earnings from fishing and farming which has suffered setbacks from frequent oil spills that kill fish in their river and destroy crops.
Clinic without doctors
The only health facility in Azuzuama is without a signpost. It boasts of four admission rooms, a consulting room and a hall mostly for antenatal patients.
The building serves not only as a clinic but also as a residence for some of the health workers who converted two of the admission rooms to their personal use.
A three-man medical team, of whom none is a doctor or nurse, manages the clinic. Apart from immunising children and conducting antenatal sessions, most cases brought to them are beyond their expertise.
Ibuomo Faforu, a health volunteer who arrived at the clinic in February described the conditions at the clinic as “difficult” because they rarely have drugs available so patients have to take a three-hour journey by boat to Yenagoa to get to a proper hospital.
“We buy drugs with our money to sell to the patients who come for treatment or bring their kids with mild cases of fever, measles, but when it comes to serious cases like typhoid they have to look for solutions in Yenagoa where there are hospitals because we don’t have drugs to treat such ailments. It has been difficult here,” she said.
There is one doctor per 5,000 people in Nigeria, according to Isaac Adewole, the former minister of health, compared with the World Health Organization, WHO, a recommendation of one per 600 people.
Azuzuama with a population of about 10,000 people is without a single doctor, leaving residents in the community vulnerable to contractible epidemics such as air and waterborne diseases.
Deborah Leighe, a tailor had passed out when she was given an injection by one of the volunteers at the clinic to bring down her high temperature.
She had a fever accompanied by high temperature. Her condition was deteriorating as she has started to have hallucinations.
Neighbours rushed her to the clinic where a volunteer in the clinic administered an unnamed injection to her.
“I fainted immediately the injection entered my body, people who were close to the hospital had to come in and pour water on me before I was revived.”
She said the clinic needs qualified doctors to function as a proper hospital.
“We don’t trust people at that clinic, even if there is no hospital in Azuzuama can’t we be entitled to a trained doctor,” she queried.
Losing the coin in the fish’s mouth
Azuzuama waterfront was known as a fishing hub until regular oil spills from Agip’s activities which started in 1978 changed the ecosystem.
Fishes in the river have become scarce and those available reek of crude oil, a condition that reduces their commercial value. Also, the fishes are thinner and smaller.
Ongbehe Udoma, deputy chairman of Azuzuama Community Development Committee, CDC, who spoke to The ICIR blamed the dwindling fortunes of fishing on the irresponsible practices of Agip in cleaning up its spills in the community.
“The size of fishes is no longer as it used to be, they are now smaller and when you cook it you perceive the odour of crude oil in the fish. The fishes I caught when I was a boy in this village are no longer in the river. Currently, as it stands you can’t use fishing to fend for your family in Azuzuama but it wasn’t always like this,” he recollects.
He says further, “The problem with Agip has always been cleaning up spills from their pipelines, if their pipeline is vandalized they say we are not entitled to compensation but we are saying clean up the spills so people whose source of living is tied to fishing and farming can earn a living.”
Tubotamuno Ilaye switches between farming and fishing to make ends meet but her resort to engaging in farming was an act of survival.
She had started fishing in 1998 but stopped two years ago after she escaped death when she almost choked in crude oil that spilt near the river after falling asleep in a canoe while fishing.
“I could no longer continue fishing as a business after I was rescued from drowning in crude oil because I was always falling sick at regular intervals. I had to start farming, but it’s difficult to get space for farming because the oil spill is everywhere. I started gathering bush mangoes (Ogbono) to sell and survive,’ she said.
She still goes back to fishing but not frequently, her fishing routine now revolves around setting traps for lobsters for food.
“I still try to fish in the dry season but it’s just to set a trap to catch lobsters,” she said.
Yet, she is not entirely free from exposure to crude oil.
“Whenever I step my feet in the water at some places to check my traps even where the water is waist-deep, crude oil that had sunk to the river bed will start coming to the surface. Even the lobsters I catch, are not safe for eating,” she said.
Nigeria consumes over 1.8 million metric tonnes of fish annually but produces a million, leaving a deficit of over 800,000 metric tonnes, which is imported annually according to the United Nations High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition report in 2018.
The report suggests that if environmental degradation in the Niger Delta persists then Nigeria’s hopes of becoming self-sufficient in fish production may never materialise.
Ebikake Evire, Principal of Comprehensive High School, Azuzuama, explained some of the challenges faced by residents in the community.
“When crude oil spills on land, it is absorbed into the soil, and water table. As you’ve noticed in this community there is no potable water. We drink from that contaminated water, we wash our clothes there and every domestic activity carried in this community is done using that water. When you cook fish from that river it breaks into bits when it is cooked. It’s not like normal fish,” he said.
A law-breaking multinational
Eni holds over 98 per cent ownership stake of its Nigerian subsidiary, Nigerian Agip Oil Company, NAOC. The company had started oil exploratory activities in Azuzuama since 1978 but regular oil spills which pollute the ecosystem of the community has complicated its relationship with the host.
From 2013 to 2018, the oil firm had allocated a total of €1.247 billion on environmental provisions to cater for estimated costs for environmental clean-up and remediation of soil and groundwater in areas where it’s business activities had created pollution problems across the world.
The NOSDRA Act mandates oil firm to clean up or carry out remediation when reliable cost estimation is within 24 hours.
The pollution created in Azuzuama from Agip’s pipeline has continued unabated for over years without the intervention of environmental regulatory agencies mandated to regularly carry out inspections.
The ICIR reached out to Agip to get an interview appointment with the Public Affairs Manager, Evans Ijeoma but all efforts made was frustrated.
When The ICIR visited Agip’s corporate headquarters in Abuja to book an appointment with the Public Affairs unit, a security staff took extra measures in checking the credentials of the journalist before assigning him to another a guard who took him to the mailing room where he dropped the letter and was escorted out of the premises.
An official letter dated 1 July 2019 was hand-delivered and was duly received by the mailing department of the oil firm but until the time of filing this report, there was no response to the letter.
Reminders sent to Agip were also not acknowledged by the oil firm.
NOSDRA is an agency charged with ensuring compliance with environmental legislation in the petroleum sector.
The agency ascertains the area where remediation or clean up work should take place, conducts inspection work and determines the compensation to be paid to those affected.
Oil firms managing a pipeline are saddled with the responsibility to clean up any outflow of oil along its pipelines and remediate the environment within 24 hours of a spill irrespective of the cause or nature of the spill as stipulated by the NOSDRA, Act 2005.
A fine of one million naira was pegged as a penalty to be paid by the defaulting oil firms for failure to clean a spill while failure to report a spill attracts a fine of five hundred thousand naira for each day the incident is not reported.
The Director-General of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, Idris Mohammed, in an interview with The ICIR stated that his agency compels oil firms to clean up the environment where spills occur irrespective of the cause of the spill.
“The oil companies are mandated to cleanup whenever there’s a spill but I can’t deny that the rate of spills is higher than the rate of remediation no doubt about that because everyday pipelines are being vandalized in Bayelsa State. So, as an operator, you will have to choose between cleanup or operations.
“For example, Nigerian Agip Oil Company has a unit called search and repair where they use a chopper to monitor their pipelines and fix leaking ones. To that effect, we placed our officials on a rota duty so that our officers can keep tabs on them. That’s not what it’s supposed to be, but we still ensure they clean up,” he said.
Contrary to his claims, Azuzuama communities are still covered with a deluge of oil spills that have spread across farmland and river. And Agip, the company responsible to clean the environment continues to look away as if nothing has happened.
Chris Nku, an environmental activist with the Stakeholder Democracy Network, SDN, said the failure to pass the NOSDRA amendment bill has made the agency handicapped in its functions.
“NOSDRA has to be more empowered to do its job because they lack the capacity and manpower to fully carry out their function that’s why the NOSDRA amendment bill should be passed.
“Their challenge is autonomy where they have to be more independent, for instance, they depend on the oil companies’ to take the lead in carrying out cleanup or remediation because they lack capacity, if they don’t have that capacity then they won’t do their jobs,” he said.