In this investigation, ELFREDAH KEVIN-ALERECHI, a freelance Journalist, reports on how women in several communities in Rivers State suffer from 24 hour-non-stop gas flaring and regular oil spills from Nigerian Agip Oil Company facilities. These communities include Otua, Ibia, Okukaeze, Ubomanimi, otherwise known as Obiafor field, and Okwuzi community in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area (ONELGA), of Rivers State.
“Health wise we have been sick. As I talk to you now, I have respiratory problem because of these gases I have inhaled and my eyes are itching.”
These were the words of Lady Martha Igwe (Not real name), who only spoke on the condition of anonymity, in Okwuzi community. She has been barely able to survive on her fish farming business in the last four years.
The skin on Igwe’s fish suddenly started peeling off, but she had no idea why the sudden change because she had been feeding them well, and their water was usually replaced on time. To deal with the problem, a neighbour advised her to do a water test.
The result was revealing. In her words, “The flaring has made our water to be so acidic. When I tested the water of my fish pond, the pH was 4.7. It started peeling their skin. And my cat fish skin started peeling. We thought they were injuring themselves, not until we did the test. Instead of losing them, I started treating my water”, she added.
Igwe was lucky to have a neighbour who was knowledgeable enough to recommend water test. What about other fish farmers who are suffering same as Martha but have no such information?
“As women, we are good at farming, and you need to see what this flaring has done to us. You need to see the hazard. If you look at our crops, you will see stunted growth. Colour of the leaves change. The flaring of gas has made some metals to sink into our water,” she lamented.
Igwe’s story is familiar to other women in other communities in Rivers State who suffer from gas flaring by different multinationals operating in the oil rich Niger Delta region.
The visits to the oil – rich communities of Otua, Ibia, Okukaeze, Ubomanimi, all in Rivers State, revealed that there is no school, no market, and hospital for residents. Bushes surround the communities, with few houses made with mud.
If any member of the community falls sick at night, he/she will have to wait till the next morning before crossing the Orashi River to Omuku town, the headquarters of Ogba/Egbema Local Government Area.
“Women sometimes have low birth weight. These things affect the baby in the womb. Sometimes, even deformity, and bleeding cases. It is horrible. This flaring must stop. The government should come and do something about it”, said a senior health worker at the General Hospital in Omoku said.
A 2017 research by Ann Gibbons reveals that babies born after natural gas extraction began in Pennsylvania, especially those living near freckling sites, had significantly lower birth weights and worse health than other babies.
Oil and gas exploration, a large scale problem
According to the information received via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Rivers State Ministry of Environment, a total of hundred and eighty seven (187) oil spillage cases occurred in 2016 in the state. Inspection shows that the Nigerian Agip oil company Limited (NOAC) recorded the highest spillage, which occurred in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of the state.
In 2017, a total number of three hundred and nineteen (319) cases of oil and gas spillages were inspected and investigated by the State Ministry of Environment. The records show that Agip had the highest number of 186 which, occurred in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers State, Nigeria.
From January to November 2018, a total number of 335 cases of crude oil and gas spillage were inspected/investigated by the ministry and other regulators, the affected asset owners (companies) and the communities.
Agip recorded the highest number of oil spills at 159, with Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area having the highest number of crude oil spill/gas flaring cases at 135, followed by Ahoada West LGA-33, and Andoni as the least cases with two.
The post summary cleanup inspection of 2018 report by the Rivers State Ministry of Environment disclosed 94 satisfactory; two spill points assessment/closeout and two cleanup remediation monitoring.
The ministry’s report from 2016-2018 shows that a total number of 375 incidents were caused by illegal bunkering, vandalisation, hacksaw cut, and drilled hole (sabotage) across Agip facilities in River State.
Agip caused about 75% of the incidents. Bright Abali, President, Ogba Youth Council believes that the oil company, in trying to save cost, uses obsolete equipment.
RIVERS STATE MINISTRY OF ENVIRONMENT REPORT ON AGIP OIL SPILL CASES
RECORDED SPILL CASES IN ONELGA
Summary of Oil Spill cases
2018 Summary of post cleanup inspection recorded as at November 20, 2018
Abali said that “some pipes are crossing the length and breadth of Ogba/Egbema LGA, they are long overdue, they are eroded, they are not serving the test of time’, he said.
For him, Agip lacks the capacity to put in place the actual global best practice of exploration.
“Go to the river side of Agip OML 61 and the neighbouring OML 58, you will see gas gushing out from the water, the people still drink from it, they do everything with the water, yet AGIP blames it on sabotage. They are not thinking of transforming flare to wealth,” Abali said.
This should all be blamed on the company’s failure to upgrade on the current global trends of exploration, he stated.
Indeed, when our reporter visited these communities, some oil and gas pipes were sited with rusty surface.
A rusty and old oil pipe if not repaired can lead to equipment failure, loss of productivity, likely consequences of environmental degradation, oil leaks and thus oil spillage, said Mr. Kingsley Chibuzor Nwogbidi, Chairman, Nigerian Environmental Society, Rivers State branch.
From Omoku town to Obiafor is about 30 minutes drive, but motorists have no option than to leave their cars at Omoku, then cross the Orashi River with a canoe to get to Obiafor. Those with motorbikes and bicycles cross with their bike inside the canoe and pay N200.
On her visit, the reporter started feeling some hotness in the eyes while crossing the Orashi River. She met a young petty trader and asked if her eyes itch her too and she replied, “madam, we are used to it. You are feeling it because this is your first time of coming to this area. However, I usually see darkness whenever I am cooking”.
On the way to Obiafor, the reporter saw an old woman and her three boys in their palm oil mill who also spoke about the effect of gas flaring on residents.
“Each time I enter the bush with my children to cut palm fruits, our eyes are always dark”, said Mama Mercy, a palm oil miller
The chocolate complexioned woman, who resides at Otua community, has been doing her palm oil business for more than 32 years. Also, Mama Mercy, whose husband died 12 years ago, singlehandedly trained her nine children, though some dropped out of school due to finance.
The mother who cannot speak English lamented: “my challenge is the manner the smoke comes to spoil my roof. The smoke disturbs a lot. When we enter the bush to cut palm fruit, the smoke will cover our faces, we will be unable to see the palm fruit properly when cutting. The smoke affects me a great deal. When the smoke comes, I have to manage it. It sometimes makes me to cough, sometimes I can’t even breathe well.”
EFFECTS OF OIL SPILLS IN ONELGA
Just like the Ogoniland, livelihood seems to have shut down in Obiafor due to oil spills in the fish pond where community buy and sell fish from.
One of Agip’s major flow stations is located here. Inside the flow station is a family fish pond from which they catch fish for consumption and make profit .
Precious Osiagu, who buys fish from the pond, lamented how oil spills have affected her business, compelling her to send her children to public schools.
“We are the traders, we buy fish. The oil has spoilt the fish. We can no longer see fish to buy in the water. We are now idle here, no fish, because of the oil spills in the pond”, she said.
“Before the water was polluted, the fish was always big, we buy and make gain, but we no longer see fish here again. It has weakened our business, Osiagu, added.
The young, pregnant, pimpled – faced Osiagu lamented that the situation has impacted badly on her family.
“It is through this river we buy fish and sell and train our children, but now it has been polluted, forcing us to pull them out from private school, and we are planning to put them in government school, and you know they don’t teach very well in government schools.”
When caught, the fish would be dried for days before it will be taken to the market, but it cannot stay longer again.
“Before, when we buy the fish from the river, we will dry and keep it till whenever we want to go to the city to sell it, even if it is one week, it won’t go bad. But now, the fish gets spoilt quickly,” she complained.
When asked what she wants from government and Agip, she said; “I want them to come and see the women buying fish from the camp. They should clean the place to enable fish return back to the river and for us to continue managing the way we have been. Our husbands don’t have work,” she urged.
“We have been getting water from this fish pond before it was polluted. We still get water from it with style,” said Nkiru Ibeh, another fish buyer from the camp.
Ibeh, light complexioned and skinny, with dark spots on her body, said “we get water from the fish pond before the pollution, we still get water from it with style. But, now that other companies are in the community, we walk three miles to get the water.
SCIENTIFIC TEST OF THE WATER FROM OBIAFOR FISH POND
The laboratory analysis of the water samples from the fish pond by our reporter at a popular Agro – allied company in Rivers State, reveals that it is polluted with 5.47 pH against the acceptable pH value of drinking water.
The pH is the indicator for acidity and alkalinity and indicates when the water is good or bad for drinking. The normal required pH usual falls between 7-8pH, said EBINIMI JOE ANSA, Director, African Regional Aquaculture Centre.
Flowing surface waters such as streams, rivers, and creeks that are not polluted have a good pH range of 6.5 to 7.5, this range is good for fish in their natural habitats in Rivers State, Ansa added.
World Health Organization says, exposure to extreme high pH values results in irritation to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes.
In 2010, 16 barrels of oil were spilled on our farm and till date Agip has not done any cleanup, said Eluozo Emmanuel, whose mother’s land was affected by the spill.
“The spills occur often, because the pipes have stayed for so many years. They don’t even care to do good cleanup and proper remediation”, he added.
This is contrary to the state Ministry of Environment 2018 post cleanup summary, which was 94% satisfactory with the cleanup done by Agip.
Emmanuel said that he was surprised when there was no compensation by AGIP or a cleanup, after receiving calls from the company to reduce the number of spills.
Emmanuel, whose mother still farms in the polluted land since there is no farm in Omoku town where she resides, added that “my mother still farms in the land, she has no other farm in Omoku, that is why we tell people that the land is a family land and not a community land”.
Emmanuel, who is married with children, narrated that there have been health issues due to gas flaring and pollution, which, according to him, are eye-related problems and cancer.
His words, “we have bad diseases which our old people do not have, even our roofs, we have coloured zinc here because of gas flaring and at the end we don’t benefit anything”
Incidentally while returning from Obiafor, our reporter ran into some Agip company staff amending some spoilt pipes.
When the reporter visited the farm where 16 barrels were alleged to have spilled, she could not enter as it was still full of water.
At about 10:30am one Tuesday morning in August 2019 in Okwuzi community, Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government, the morning sun was shining bright. Riding on a motorbike from Omuku town to Okwuzi, the reporter saw three pipes flaring gases, and her fixer informed he that the gas is flared every minute of every day all year round.
“This gas flaring is affecting us too much. I have suffered from catarrh, malaria, even my daughter has been having series of itching in her buttocks, pointing the little Ms Onuegbu, who has some black and pale spots”, said Mrs. Matthew Onuegbu
“Taking my daughter to the hospital is expensive and i cannot it afford now,” said Mrs. Onuegbu
“Gas flaring is one problem that has refused to go. We have been fighting against gas flaring for over two years now. The oil companies have continued to flare gas as if nothing happens”, said Elder Dandy, Executive Director of Niger Delta Initiative, also an indigene of ONELGA.
Elder dDndy is a clean environment advocate who works with several environmental non-profit organizations across the Niger Delta states.
For him, the problem of Okwuzi community is that Agip had influenced all the community leaders by giving them businesses which made it difficult for them to complain in spite of the impact of gas flaring and oil spillage on lives and property in their community.
“The problem now is that the community cannot take Agip to court, because the company has somehow bought the mind of the community by influencing the leadership. By having business dealings with the AGIP, it has become difficult for the community to speak out against the oil company’s operations” Elder Dandy said.
“Gas flaring is a real problem to the people of Okwuzi. Zinc on our roofs has changed colour, once you build house within two years the zinc would change, the rain is acidic,” he added.
Residents recalled that before the Nigerian Civil War in the late ‘60s, they fetched rainwater for drinking, but lamented that today rainwater cannot be used for anything. The water is completely black.
“There is an emergence of unknown diseases in our area here of recent, like the eye problem as you can see I am putting on glasses. I have been putting on glasses for over ten years, but my late uncles at 70s & 80s he was able to read newspapers without glasses. Today you see younger people of twelve- and fifteen-years using glasses,” Elder Dandy lamented.
“There is skin irritation all over the place and other respiratory challenges that can be associated with the gas flaring. Even now the heat wave has increased. The temperature of this area is far above the temperature of other areas where there is no gas flaring. Even our rivers are highly polluted because when it rains, the acid goes into the river even to the underground water”, he added.
Unfortunately for the people of Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers State, the environmental debacle in Ogoni has eclipsed other problems areas state and Niger Delta in general. All the attention of Federal Government and international community is on the Ogoni axis but here also, people are feeling the impact but attention on the Ogoni case has caused a big neglect here, Dandy opined.
The oil companies are the ones who give employment to people and they are so influential in the society that people generally do not allow discussions on issues bothering their community and the company that employed them.
“The international community, multinationals, NGOs, federal government and individual should step out to other communities and come to our aid. We have no power to fight these big monsters. we have no voice. They control everything, there is anger among the few, we are helpless, that’s why we need external help,” Elder Dandy appealed.
According to a study carried out by Amadi Akobundu of the Geology Department, Federal University of Technology, Minna, gas-flaring constitutes a major source of water pollution in the oil producing region of Eastern Niger Delta. The results of the laboratory analysis of the water samples revealed that the water sources in the area have negatively impacted acid-rain and NO2, SO2 and CO2 from the burning gas.
HEALTH RISK OF GAS FLARING AND OIL POLLUTION
“When a car is parked outside for long and the acid rainfall on it, you will start seeing the colour defaced. When you compare it to humans, this is the same effects such water has on us especially when it has been used to cook,” said Daniel Onyetulem, Managing Director, Century Medicaid Services limited.
Onyetulem, a trustee at Stevenson Holistic Care Foundation, observed that these substances accumulate in the lungs, which starts to react.
He said that said precautionary method to reduce the impact of gas flare should be to “avoid acid rain, such water should not be used to cook or bathe. Avoid having contact with acid rain, do not allow it to touch you, avoid leaving around areas where gases are flared and boiling the water doesn’t mean you have treated the water”.
Respiratory tract infections are diseases that effects the nose, throats, oesophagus, while symptoms can look asthmatic. Some react adversely to the substance that is flared, sneezing, redness of the eyes, the persons becomes restless, which also result to excessive dry cough that is productive of any sputum.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION
In Nigeria, despite the plethora of laws dealing with pollution generally, when it comes to the issue of compensation for oil pollution, the only law that makes express provision for compensation of victims of such pollution is the Oil Pipeline Act CAP O7, LFN 2004.
Chima Williams, President Green Alliance Nigeria, who is also the Head of Legal Resources, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, also cited Sections 245 and 247 of Criminal Code Act Cap C39 LFN 2004, which makes provisions for prohibition and/or punishment for pollutions of various kinds, including that of petroleum, adding that the difference between them and the Oil Pipelines Act is that they see pollution from either criminal angles that should be punished by jail terms or be restituted by claims of damages or for compensation anchored on the ownership of land.
It is not the duty of everybody to know what the law says on every subject matter, therefore, victims of pollution of any kind should seek legal advice from those competent to know on their rights. Whether such pollution or polluting practices have breached their rights and if yes, what remedies are available to them and how can such be secured, he stresses.
He further calls for government and businesses that engage in polluting activities to follow principles of respecting Citizens rights.
“As every pollution impacts negatively on the rights of citizens in terms of breaching their rights to life, dignity of the human person, and right to live in an environment conducive for their development etc, one will advise both governments and business that engage in polluting activities to begin to follow the principles of respecting the citizens rights, protecting such rights and when in course of their operations such rights are violated, they must provide remedy”.
A letter dated October 7, 2019 sent to the Port Harcourt office of Agip on our findings has not been answered. The letter was duly submitted through the Public Affairs Department. When our reporter got to Agip offices in the Rivers state capital on October 7 at about 4.00pm, a security man told her the officers to receive my letter had closed and asked her to return the next day at 8.00 am.
When I got to the gate of Agip Company in Port Harcourt, a security officer asked me to open my bag I did and they searched the bag and directed me to go behind the security post and look for Room 4. When I got there room 4 was locked, I saw some persons carrying different foodstuffs into different cars outside the corridor, it looks like they are heading for an event, both old, and young men and women.
She went back the next day at 8.00 am and was told by a security man, Mr Ogu, to drop the letter into the postal box of the Public Relations Department, with an assurance that staff of the unit would pick it up. Mr Ogu however declined to sign or stamp and acknowledgement copy of the letter, claiming that Agip does not acknowledge letters.
In the letter, the reporter had request the oil company to speak on the allegations by the people of ONELGA on the constant oil pollution without cleanup and compensation, as well as the continuous flaring of gas, which the people say adversely affect their health business and the environment.
Has the NOSDRA been active enough to ensure proper cleanup and penalise defaulters?The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) is a government owned agency saddled with the responsibility ensuring compliance with environmental laws in the petroleum sector. Data obtained from the Nigeria Oil Spill monitor, www.oilspillmonitor.ng, a website run by NOSDRA to keep track of oil spills in the country estimated about 8134,81251 spilled areas in ONELGA
“The Act empowers NOSDRA to receive reports of oil spillages and coordinate oil spill response activities throughout Nigeria but does not empower the agency to penalise for oil spillage,” said Cyrus Nkangwung, Port Harcourt Zonal Director, in an official letter dated September 25, 2019, quoting section 6(2) and (3) of the NOSDRA (Establishment) Act No.15, 2006.
Most stakeholders opined that the agency has not done enough to protect the environment and the rights of residents of oil producing communities.
This Investigation was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Report Women! Female Reporters Leadership Programme (FRLP) implemented with support from Free Press Unlimited.