Lagos, Nigeria – Members of Nigeria’s Nembe community have taken to the streets of Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa state, to demand action against oil and gas spills from a leaking wellhead that has been affecting local residents for more than a month.
Crude oil and natural gas have been spurting into the dozens of nearby fishing settlements since early November, along the Nembe coastline and into the Santa Barbara River which meanders through the Niger Delta before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Tides have reportedly carried the spill’s impact further, to communities in the neighbouring Rivers state.
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The cause of the spill at the OML 29 Well 1 platform – operated by Nigeria’s largest domestic oil firm, Aiteo Eastern E&P, which took over the Santa Barbara wellhead from Royal Dutch Shell in 2015 – is still under investigation. Activists quoted in local media reports have described the incident as the biggest oil spill disaster in the history of the Nigerian petroleum industry.
“We want the world to hear our cry that we are on the verge of extinction,” Allen Jonah, secretary of the Nembe Se Congress, a nationalist group at the forefront of Monday’s protest outside the Nigerian Union of Journalists’ press centre in Yenagoa.
“Let the international community not just sit idle to see that whatever is happening will calm down by itself.”
Nigeria’s federal government, through the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, owns majority stakes in joint ventures with oil companies that operate in the country and are also tasked with running day-to-day operations.
Since the 1970s, the oil-rich Niger Delta region has accounted for an overwhelming majority of Nigeria’s earnings, turning the country into Africa’s largest oil producer.
But the region continues to suffer the multiplier effect of decades of environmental degradation, which has eroded livelihoods and deprived residents of basic essentials such as access to clean drinking water. The area’s mangroves and swamps have become uninhabitable for many species and the average human life expectancy is also 10 years lower in the Delta than elsewhere in Nigeria.
According to Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment, there have been approximately 5,000 documented cases of oil spillage just in the past six years. But the latest incident, which activists say has continued for more than 35 days, shocked industry stakeholders.
Deputy Environment Minister Sharon Ikeazor has compared the pollution scene to the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Japan and called for a review of the law backing The National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency in order to introduce stiffer penalties on oil companies. After visiting the scene in late November, state Governor Douye Diri likened the situation to the Gulf of Mexico incident in 2010, widely considered to be the largest marine oil spill in history.
Aiteo says a clean-up operation is well under way.
In a November 24 statement, the company said it had deployed two 1,000-tonne ramps and other equipment to help mop up the spills.
Last month, Andrew Oru, Aiteo’s director of asset protection and community matters, also told reporters that “this particular incident has not produced much crude oil in the environment and the crude oil has been easily contained”.
He also hinted that sabotage may have been at play, saying that Aiteo was “particularly suspicious of what may have happened to the wellhead”.
But industry experts are calling for an independent investigation and say the scale of the spill is much larger than what has been put forward.
I am currently in Bayelsa and I am appalled by the level of environmental degradation at Nembe.
— $Hydra 🏳️🌈 (@TheBriDen) December 7, 2021
Alagoa Morris, Yenagoa-based project officer with Environmental Rights Action & Friends of the Earth Nigeria, said action from the federal government, “which has the lion’s share in the joint venture arrangement”, was lacking and called for other industry players to step in and help halt the spill.
“They [Aiteo] don’t have the capacity and that has propelled them to get other organisations that arrived on the site with their machines and have been battling for the past four or five days but it has not stopped,” said Morris, who in late November led a fact-finding team to speak to villagers and security officials in the area.
Another visit is planned for the coming days, he added.
Meanwhile, the protesters in Yenagoa urged both Aiteo and the government to address the current urgent situation and mitigate further impact on the lives of residents in the long term.
“We are fishermen by nature [and] that river is what we survive on; the mangrove, huge marine resources is what we feed on,” said Jonah.
Al Jazeera contacted Aiteo for comment but had not received a reply by the time of publication.