Hopes Fade for Cleanup In Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Delta

The Ogoniland region of Nigeria has long been badly polluted by decades of oil production that has fouled the delta and contaminated drinking water. A United Nations report has recommended a massive recovery initiative, but so far the Nigerian government has shown few signs it will agree to the cleanup project.

Over the past half century, oil companies have turned the Niger delta in West Africa, one of the world’s largest mangrove swamps, into a poisoned landscape. Twice the size of the Mississippi delta, it is today a desolate world of oil-encrusted creeks, dead fish, stinking swamps and charred soil, where villagers are exposed to dangerous levels of hydrocarbons in their drinking water. Last summer, hopes were raised when Royal Dutch Shell, the biggest operator there, appeared ready to sign up to a billion-dollar cleanup of the delta’s most polluted heart, Ogoniland. But now there is a growing fear that the Nigerian government is about to pull the plug on the cleanup project.

The delta rescue plan followed a two-year study by scientists from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). They surveyed 200 oil-spill sites and 120 kilometers of pipelines, studied soil and water from 800 contaminated boreholes, and held dozens of village public meetings.

Their report, published last August, was damning. In spite of corporate claims of assiduous cleanup, “at some sites, a crust of tar and ash has been in place for several decades.” All the creeks were contaminated, the scientists found, often with floating layers of ancient oil. Most fish had departed.

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Oil pollution in Ogoniland

Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
A man scoops spilled crude oil from the waters of the Niger delta in the village of Bodo.
UNEP scientists, led by Henrik Slotte, who heads the organization’s conflict and disaster management branch, said recovery was still possible. But it required “the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise [in which] contaminated drinking water, land, creeks, and important ecosystems such as mangroves are brought back to full, productive health.” Cleaning up Ogoniland would cost an initial billion dollars and take up to 30 years, the report concluded. But the project could become a model for rehabilitating the rest of the blighted delta. UNEP director Achim Steiner said he hoped “the findings can break decades of deadlock in the region… and offer a blueprint for how the oil industry might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond.”

The Niger delta contains the largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 40 billion barrels. Shell began oil pumping there in the late 1950s, when Nigeria was still part of the British Empire. Today its subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, extracts some 100 million barrels a year in a joint venture with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company.

The oil revenues provide 80 percent of the Nigerian government’s income and have helped make Shell the fifth-largest corporation in the world. But the environmental conditions have become an increasingly embarrassing anachronism for the company. Leaks have proliferated. One estimate is that 1.5 million tons of oil have been spilled into the wetlands over the decades from the delta’s 5,000 oil wells and more than 5,000 kilometers of pipelines. And with all this happening amidst some 1,500 delta villages, where ten million fishers and farmers gain little from the vast wealth being created around them, it has also been a recipe for injustice and conflict.

On a visit a few years ago, I saw pipelines, large and small, snaking through villages and across fields and bush, usually with no fences or markings. The signs of spills and oil fires were everywhere. Villagers complained angrily that
The pipelines that run across Ogoniland have repeatedly sprung leaks, due to both old age and sabotage.
the oil poisoned their crops and emptied the creeks of fish, and handed me humble petitions asking for outside help.

Increasingly, the villagers have responded to their plight by taking hacksaws to the pipelines to steal oil and setting up makeshift refineries, where they distill the stolen crude to make diesel. This has compounded the delta’s devastation. Villagers say some local companies have even sabotaged pipelines as a way of extracting contracts to clean up the mess.

At the heart of the delta live more than a million Ogoni people. Ogoniland, just east of the main oil town, Port Harcourt, became a symbol of the delta’s crisis in the early 1990s when the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) decided to take on Shell and the Nigerian government. In 1995, after a bitter feud within the community, a federal court convicted nine activists, including the founder of MOSOP, Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, of killing rival community leaders. The activists were all hanged. Shell denied complicity in the executions, but made an out-of-court settlement on the matter in a New York court in 2009.

In the face of intense local anger, Shell has not pumped a barrel of oil from Ogoniland since 1993. But it cannot escape the stain of what has happened there. This is partly because of the toxic legacy of its past activities, and partly because pipelines that run across Ogoniland have repeatedly sprung leaks — often through old age and lack of maintenance, but more frequently through sabotage. Under Nigerian law, Shell is responsible for cleaning up the mess from its oil, whoever is responsible for spilling it.

In 2006, the then-president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, invited UNEP to assess how to detoxify Ogoniland. It took two years just to negotiate the terms of the study — during which time the government ran a massive military crackdown on dissidents in the delta. UNEP’s Steiner says that, in the febrile atmosphere, he got flak for “colluding” with Shell, which paid for the study. But he insists the resulting report was genuinely independent.

UNEP’s inspectors found Shell’s environmental stewardship often far below international standards. For instance, the company said it had cleaned up after a massive spill near Ejama-Ebubu village in 1970. But the inspectors found much of the 17-hectare spill area still caked with oil and asphalt
The UNEP found Shell’s environmental stewardship often far below environmental standards.
residues that continued to ooze into the lagoon and poison underground water.

UNEP criticized Shell’s standard method of handling spills in the delta, a process called remediation by enhanced natural attenuation (RENA). This involves piling up contaminated topsoil and adding fertilizer to speed up natural degradation of the oil. UNEP found that “the RENA process is failing to achieve either environmental clean-up or legislative compliance.” Often, rain washed the oil from the soil piles into wetlands and creeks. Sometimes, the company’s contractors had dug trenches to encourage just that.

If the oil didn’t go into the creeks, it frequently seeped underground into aquifers used for drinking water. At Nisisioken Ogale, inspectors discovered villagers drinking well water containing 900 times the World Health Organization limit for benzene, a carcinogen. The cause was clear: The well was close to a pipeline — run by Shell’s main partner, the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company — that had suffered a major leak six years before. “Public health is seriously threatened” by such incidents, UNEP said. Yet “there is no location in Ogoniland where groundwater remediation has been attempted.”

In most places UNEP inspected, Shell’s RENA cleanups did not meet Nigerian legal standards. Nor was this merely an unfortunate legacy of history. The company had set up a new remediation management team in early 2010, but the report found “they still do not meet the local regulatory requirements or international best practices.”

In response to the report, Shell insists that “RENA remains a proven and internationally recognized method to remediate spill sites.” But the company has promised to “review a sample of sites,” in Ogoniland and across the delta, “to check that adequate remediation has indeed been carried out.” So far, there are no published reports of the outcomes of those reviews.

Shell says most spills today are caused by sabotage of its pipelines and that local hostility makes sending in teams to inspect and clean up difficult. UNEP agreed that may often be true. But it noted that after two massive spills in 2008, which leaked thousands of barrels of oil a day, it took the company several weeks to make repairs. “Issues of access are not the sole cause of delays,” the report stated. “In addition, the substandard approach to containment [of oil] and the unethical action of channelling oil into creeks cannot be laid at the door of the community.”

While the UNEP report relates specifically to Ogoniland, UNEP’s Slotte told Yale Environment 360 that the findings on issues like cleanup and decommissioning wells and other infrastructure apply to industry activities across the whole Niger delta. At 1,000-square-kilometers, Ogoniland covers only about 3 percent of the delta, which extends across three states along Nigeria’s southern coast.

Several community groups have gone to court over their trashed environment. A Nigerian high court recently ordered Shell to pay $25 million to five communities for a spill that occurred in 1997. In March, more than 30
Nigerian press reports say the federal government is balking at paying 55 percent of the cleanup bill.
villages in Ogoniland began a class action against Shell in London, demanding compensation for two massive spills in August 2011 for which Shell has admitted liability.

But compensation won’t help either the environment or the ability of the people in the delta to make their living there. The UNEP report and its promise of a cleanup offered that chance. It proposed creating an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority, which would be endowed with an initial billion dollars and would employ hundreds of local people to clean the land. After that, the creeks could be cleaned, sediment dredged, groundwater decontaminated, and mangroves replanted.

But eight months after the report’s release, the silence from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, grows louder.

Last August, the current President Goodluck Jonathan set up a high-level committee to consider the UNEP report, chaired by the minister of petroleum resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke. She at least knows the delta. Born in Port Harcourt, she worked for Shell there for 15 years, rising to executive director, before joining the government in 2007. As part of her job as petroleum minister, Allison-Madueke also heads Shell’s partner in the delta, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Her committee is said to have reported to the president in November, but Slotte says UNEP has not been notified of any outcomes. Many fear her ministry will scupper the cleanup scheme. Its officials may be angry that the UNEP study criticized the ministry’s oversight of the oil industry and called for cleanup enforcement to be transferred to the ministry of the environment.

There is also a matter of money. Recent Nigerian press reports say the federal government is balking at paying 55 percent of the cleanup bill — equivalent to its share of the profits from the joint venture with Shell. Shell says it is willing to pay its share.

Some senior UNEP officials fear that unless there is agreement in the next few months, the scheme will be dead. It could still happen, of course. But I was struck by a sentence in Shell’s response to the UNEP report that suggested even a cleanup could cause conflict.


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UNEP had noted in its recommendations that “until the land-based contamination has been dealt with, it will be futile to begin a clean-up of the creeks.” The point was a technical one, in a paragraph about “the sequence of remediation.” But Shell chose to interpret it as a political point. Shell said in its response that it “agrees with the UNEP finding that all sources of ongoing contamination, including activities such as crude theft and illegal refining [my italics], must be brought to an end before an effective widespread cleanup can begin.”

UNEP believes that pollution remediation can help end the war between the Ogoni people and Shell. But before it starts remediation, Shell wants the attacks on its facilities to end. If achieving that requires another law-and-order crackdown in Ogoniland, the delta’s inhabitants could easily see future cleanup teams as their enemies, not their saviors.