January 21, 2022

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Why Bayelsa Govt Officials Share Blames In Nembe Oil Spill Saga -Alagoa Morris

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In this interview, Mr. Alagoa Morris of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth who was part of the team that visited the site of the recent oil spill in Bayelsa State told TNN in this online interview, that apart from federal government agencies, some officials of the Bayelsa State government were to blame in the handling of the spill.

Excerpts:

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Let’s do a post mortem on the Aiteo spill? What do you think really went wrong?

I believe you are referring to the Spill at OML 29 Santa Barbara Well 1, operated by Aiteo. I would say there has not been any Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) report informing the public of the cause. The first attempt at JIV was not possible due to the high pressure spraying of crude oil in gaseous form at the wellhead. That was in the early days of the incident. Unfortunately, the second JIV attempt was on Friday last week and it was not done too, due to the fact that some persons or the Bayelsa team made up of members of the Technical committee set up by the state governor was allegedly denied access

I represent the ERA/ FoEN as far as such environmental field monitoring exercises are concerned and my observations have since been documented in the form of Field report ( excerpts of which are published in this edition). First of all, it might interest you to know that this very wellhead also spilled crude oil into the environment on 2nd October, 2019 and on the day of JIV, 10th October, 2019 I also visited the site. There are two wellheads in the environment identified as Worikuma-kiri. But only this wellhead 1 has been spilling.

When civil society team and media visited on 9th December, 2021 I came up with another report. So, I have expressed myself in those ERA field reports.

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What did you find out, especially as it has to do with the rural dwellers and their aquatic life?

It is the same old story of denial of the people’s means of livelihood and source of revenue and by implementation affecting those depending on them too, especially educational needs of children. The fisher folks have been denied of going about their environment freely and making use of the natural water around them. It also has health implications. It was all lamentations by victims. And, this is where Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights becomes very important.

So where do you think Aiteo went wrong in the aspect of containing the spill?

As per handling the high pressure oil spill; it was a matter of experience and equipment. So, I would say Aiteo was confused and lacked the wherewithal to take appropriate actions promptly.

And, even though it was good step taken by Aiteo to apply booms to prevent all the spilled crude oil flowing into Santa Barbara and tributaries, the nature of the spill and environment made the booming effort relatively ineffective. This was why, despite the booming, Santa Barbara River and tributaries; including the Atlantic Ocean coastline, was flooded with crude oil

It was also nice that Aiteo sent some relief materials, even though they were not enough. Sadly, the actual victims in the fishing settlements were not properly attended to. Most of those at the fishing settlements that are impacted are not from Nembe Local Government. Some are from Southern Ijaw, Ogoni and even from Akwa Ibom.

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People have said the company is insensitive to the plight of the affected communities. Do you agree?

There may be outstanding issues between the communities and Aiteo which I wouldn’t like to delve into.

But, as far as this oil spill matter is concerned, there is no difference between Aiteo and Shell, Agip or Chevron, both in the use of armed military personnel. The same is the case with Conoil. Instead of blaming the oil companies, whether indigenous or not; we need to look critically at the oil industry regulators. For a while now, some of us have been complaining about what has been observed as regulatory capture. And this is really bad.

So you think the oil firms have been very unfair to Bayelsa oil bearing communities? What is your least expectation in times like this?

In the field of football, the referee is the regulator. We need to see the regulators of oil industry clearly separated from the oil companies. And this also means proper funding of the agencies like NOSDRA and Ministry of Environment in the states.

I can’t put total blame on any oil company because we also have fraudulent and unscrupulous community folks who act in ways that deny our communities of environmental justice. These community folks, some leaders and so-called smart ones in the cities who see themselves as willing tools in the hands of the oil companies; they have share in the blame. They are benefit captors; including some government officials in the state.

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When you say unfair to oil producing communities, I wonder what exactly is the issue. You said some government officials share in the blame. How?

This is so because, I see more of oil companies facilities in communities more than state government sponsored projects in the communities.  The 13 per cent derivation is not seen in the oil producing communities even though this 13 per cent derivation is received without fail every month. Some government officials pursue individual benefits instead of the collective when dealing with issues of pollution. I have been reliably informed that some are soliciting for oil spill clean-up contracts from the same companies they ought to regulate.

So, if instead of pursuing the collective interest, one stoops so low as to go after his/her personal gain; what would such be if not comprising the common interest? If you check some of them and follow up their assets, both landed, moveable and cash in different banks; they cannot justify how they made the money to acquire such.

Some professionals in the state ministry of environment might also not let the commissioner for environment know or have access to every communication with the oil companies. That is why sometimes a commissioner for environment may not be aware of certain development . Journalists may seek information and not have due to such lacuna.

If I will hold oil companies accountable, it would be in how they fail to maintain their facilities and reaction to oil Spills in terms of effective clean-up and remediation.

Oil companies set spill sites ablaze again and again but regulatory agencies pretend not to know. Regulators only visit spill sites for JIV with the oil companies and fail to follow up to know whether impacted sites are properly cleaned or remediated, especially in Bayelsa State. I can name several sites. Currently, there is one site set ablaze along Agip’s Ogboinbiri/ Tebidaba pipeline at Ondewari/ Okpotuwari Environment in Southern Ijaw local government area. You go to Okordia, Biseni, Oruma, JK4, the story is the same; Shell and Agip doing great damage to our environment and the regulators are unaware or pretending.

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Were you ever disappointed in the federal government’s handling of the spill?

Very disappointed.

What were your expectations?

Reviewing Oil industry policies to ensure effective regulatory bodies and, taking the issues of proper clean-up and remediation of impacted areas as a matter of priority. As far as clean up and remediation of spill sites in Bayelsa is concerned, we need the UNEP recommended standard because oil spill is oil spill and the effects on the environment and people is the same.

What should all the stakeholders do to avert further occurrences

Accidents are bound to occur, but when they happen, stakeholders should take all necessary actions expected. Oil companies should ensure integrity checks on their facilities regularly. This should be confirmed by relevant agencies of state and federal agencies

The Civil Society and media should be given their constitutional spaces to operate freely, including access to sites of interest. Using the military to deny access is undemocratic and unacceptable.

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