May 17, 2022

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For The Records: How Aiteo Lied Over Bayelsa Oil Spill-Environmentalists

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Being excerpts from a field report on findings of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, after their visit to the recent

Aiteo oil spill sites in Bayelsa State. The report was presented by ALAGOA MORRIS, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by TNN.

Introduction:

African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right….  “All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development”

What became known globally as Aiteo’s OML Well 1 Spill started on 1st November, 2021 in Nembe local government area of Bayelsa State. Crude oil spewed in high pressure gaseous form into the environment for 38days [from 1st November -8th December, 2021]; as information about the stopping filtered on Wednesday, 8th December, 2021. The following day, being Thursday, 9th December, 2021 a team of environmentalists, media and community representatives tried to access the Aiteo OML 29 Well 1 site but oil industry politics frustrated their efforts.

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The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria [ERA/FoEN] had earlier visited the spill site and one of the impacted fishing settlements of interest on 21st November, 2021. So much has been said and written globally about the incident [on electronic/print and social media], the Civil Society team visit of 9th December, 2021 was not only to confirm that the spewing of crude oil/gas had stopped; but also to feel the pulse of the environment.

Led by Rev. Nnimmo Bassey, the Civil Societies were: Health Of Mother Earth Foundation [HOMEF], Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria [ERA/FoEN], Agape Birthrights, Stakeholders Democracy Network [SND], Stakeholders Alliance for Corporate Accountability [SACA], Institute For Niger Delta Studies, Nembe Se Congress, Ondewari Health Education and Environmental Project [OHEEP],  Operation Rescue, Green Earth for Great Minds Initiative, Oil And Gas Producing Areas Enlightenment And Empowerment Initiative [OGPAEEI], Nigerian Union of Journalists [NUJ, Bayelsa]etc. Interestingly, the monarch known for his sustainable environment advocacy and author [ of ”The Riddle of the Oil Thief”] the Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom, King Bubaraye Dakolo, Agada 1V was part of this team.

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Aiteo And Military Frustrated, Denied Access To Site Of Interest:

A day before the planned visit by the CSOs/Media, the cheery information that the Wellhead has been killed and crude oil/gas stopped spewing trended. Even though the visit had been scheduled to take place on that same day [Thursday, 9th December, 2021], this latest information took center stage; to be confirmed by actually seeing the Wellhead. But on getting to the entrance leading to Worikuma-kiri where the Well 1 is located, the visiting team met heavily armed military presence; in gunboats. It was discovered that the armed military personnel were of the Army and Navy; not under same Commanding Officer. They tossed the CSOs/Media team around for over two hours in the Sun, floating ons Santa Barbara River.

Firstly, one of the military men who identified himself as Army pointed to a Houseboat across the Santa Barbara River [a considerable distance away] and said the team should go to the houseboat and obtain permission from Aiteo officials to access the site. Another who apparently was a naval officer directed that the team should proceed to another houseboat in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean [about 2 kilometers away] and get clearance from the commanding Naval Officer.  At this point, the other Army officer retorted that he is not obliged to take instruction from the Navy. The visiting team proceeded to see the naval Commander in the houseboat. Armed with the approval of the naval commander, to allow access; the CSOs/Media team speeded back [in three speedboats] to the heavily guarded entrance to the site of interest. Again, the army who earlier insisted that the team go and obtain permission from Aiteo representatives in the houseboat [a little upriver] stood his ground; that Aiteo has to grant permission. At a time he made/received phone call and was heard saying thirty persons [30] came in three speedboats. He stated he was receiving instruction from Abuja. After floating for a while on the river, the team decided to go and get permission from Aiteo officials at the houseboat across Santa Barbara. After waiting and floating on the river under the scorching sun for about an hour, an Aiteo official [who came from the site of interest] gave approval for the team to visit the site. Unfortunately, the Aiteo official was also subjected to questioning by the military when the team went back to the entrance leading to the site. Before getting to this point of being dribbled back and forth; leaders of the Civil Society team reached the conclusion that the situation wasn’t only strange and a deliberate ploy to deny access but frustrating and embarrassing and hence; the need to return to Nembe. The instruction for all three speedboats to return to Nembe was sounded and two of the speedboats immediately sped off; expecting the third one to do the same.

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How Occupants Of The Third Speedboat Gained Acess To The Site:

Just before the other two speedboats disappeared from sight, Chief Nengi James, the 2nd Vice President of Ijaw National Congress and son of Nembe, pointed to the military that the team was not actually interested in gaining access through the main guarded entrance but from an accessible route directly from the bank of Santa Barbara, by walking to Worikuma-kiri. This was approved and the team proceeded in the speedboat to the bank of Santa Barbara and walked to the site; on woods laid on the swampy environment obviously displaying heavy presence of crude oil that has left everything dead [plants and animals]

At The Site Of Interest:

On getting to Worikuma-kiri [the fishing settlement within the immediate environment of OML 29, Well 1] team members independently went about whatever was of interest on the spur of the moment. With phones and cameras of different sizes and models; photos and videos were freely taken. Observations were made at the same time cursorily; bearing in mind the need for urgency and not to breach security.  Here at the OML 29 Well 1 site, friendly workers and equipment within the environment, abandoned huts, dead plants/crops like plantain, pineapple, cassava, etc, crude oil covered water and dead mangrove as far as the eyes can see were all of interest.

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Aiteo’s Claims Are Not Completely Correct:

There is difference between clean up and recovery of spilled crude oil from spill sites/environment. Aiteo is using the media to misinform the general public as far as the use of the words ”Clean up” is concerned. A statement credited to Aiteo contain on the 27 November, 2021 edition of The Guardian [written by Joseph Onyekwere], sailed with the headline ”Cleanup of Nembe Oil Spill in Full swing, Says Aiteo.” This was about eleven [11] days before the spewing of crude oil from the company’s Well 1 stopped. How can you start clean-up while crude oil was still being discharged into the environment? Also reference was made to News Agency of Nigeria [NAN] on the 10 December, 2021 edition of The Sun newspaper, with headline ” Aiteo Intensifying Clean Up of Nembe Oil Spill.” And this deliberate misinformation dished out by Aiteo is contained in other news outlets that are accessible online. This is incorrect, as the CSOs/Media visit on 9th December, 2021 only observed efforts by Aiteo aimed at recovering spilled crude oil in the boomed areas and that is not clean by any standard.

OBSERVATION/CONCLUSION:

Some minutes before speeding into Santa Barbara River from Nembe [Bassambiri] the familiar pungent smell of black gold assailed the nostrils of visitors before crude oil was actually sighted; in one of the tributaries of Santa Barbara. The level or volume of crude oil seen on Santa Barbara wasn’t significantly less, compared with what ERA/FoEN observed during the visit of 21st November, 2021. It was still heavy.

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On getting to the site of interest, it was observed that none of the two Wellheads gracing the immediate environment was spewing crude oil; include the OML 29 Well 1. Even though observations were cursorily, the negative impacts of crude oil on plants and animal lives within the immediate environment wasn’t lost. The great damage caused the environment by the spill which continued for a month and eight days was heard from the environment. Dead plants/crops and animals like land crabs locally referred to as ”Oluu” littered the environment. About ten large dead crabs were picked within a three square meters space amidst lifeless leaves of dead shrubs. With the continued presence of heavy volume of crude oil covering the entire surface of water around the Creek leading to the Wellheads and immediate environment; it is most likely that no aquatic lives would remain in that environment. The bones of dead and decomposed aquatic lives would be found at the bed of this Creek; which only proper investigation would confirm. This would be the case, if all impacted mangrove swamps are subjected to proper investigation; as difference land and marine crabs, periwinkle, oysters, fish, crayfish, etc would have died due heavy presence of substances inimical to the environment; from the high pressured continuous shelling of crude oil for a month and eight days; 24/7. That the mangrove swamps are having heavy presence of crude oil cannot be overstated; deducing from observation at the banks of Santa Barbara, how they are seriously soiled by crude oil. And because every mangrove grows on salt water, the ebbing and full tide would have taken the crude oil deep into the swamps.  This is why related JIV shouldn’t be rushed; it has to be thoroughly done in terms of identifying scope/spread of the pollutant. Unless properly cleaned up; the pollutant would remain in the environment and deny the people of their means of livelihood for years.

Apart from the boomed area at the entrance to the Creek leading to Worikuma-kiri [joining Santa Barbara] where the heavily armed military presence was observed and close to the Well 1 where recovery of spilled crude oil appears to be ongoing; there is no sign of Aiteo doing any other work elsewhere along the stretch of Santa Barbara River and its tributaries, rivulets and impacted mangrove swamps on both sides. So, nothing like clean up has been started by Aiteo and; cleanup cannot precede Joint Investigation Visit [JIV] report. The cart cannot be in from of the horse.

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ERA/FoEN DEMAND:

So much has been said on the subject matter by experts locally and internationally. However, ERA/FoEN having visited the site during the high pressure spewing of crude oil and after the Wellhead stopped spewing crude oil; hereby makes the following demands that:

[1] Aiteo, the polluter shouldn’t dictate the tune with oil industry politics and propaganda; as it is false to claim clean up has started. Rather, a simple onsite official protocol to be met by interested stakeholders should be in place for site visits instead of using armed military personnel to prevent stakeholders from seeing and knowing what is happening at the impacted environment.

[2] A properly constituted Joint Investigation Team [JIT] should be commissioned for JIV by the Federal Government; including experts representing the victims and not just ordinary community folks. Recommendations in terms of Post Impact Assessment [PIA], proper cleanup and remediation/restoration of the environment should be acted upon immediately; devoid of bureaucracy.

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[3] The Bayelsa State Government should go beyond setting up Technical Committee, but take practical steps ensuring proper investigation of level of impact and spread of the pollutant from Aiteo’s OML Well 1, including further actions in the interest of primary victims; the fragile ecosystem and those whose health, sources of income or livelihood depends on the environment. Bayelsans have not forgotten the Committees set up by the immediate past state administration in connection with Chevron’s KS Endeavor explosion in January, 2016. Nothing significant came from those committees.

[4] CSOs and the media are critical stakeholders, especially Environmental/Human Rights advocacy groups and sustainable development and health advocacy bodies; hence the authorities and especially Aiteo should create the enabling space for independent monitoring and observation of processes aimed at realising environmental justice and in line with Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right. These critical stakeholders cannot be denied access.

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