Nigeria: 'World oil pollution capital'

Niger Delta Campaigners say there are 300 oil spills every year in the Delta

Visitors to the Nigerian village of Kpor, deep in the Niger Delta, are greeted by strange sights: silver frogs blink from gleaming puddles, sunlight bounces from an eerie black lake, and dragonflies hover over cauldrons of tar.

This is Rivers State, an area abundant in oil and gas. Environmentalists call the Delta the global capital of oil pollution, but unlike the Gulf of Mexico, there are no underwater robots, flotillas of scientists or oil booms here.

On 12 May 2009, Shell's Bomo manifold blew up, leaking massive amounts of crude. Local people say 39 hectares were contaminated. A second leak - from a derelict oil tap - had already been continuously spilling oil for years.

Shell hired a local company to clean up, but the area remains an oil slick.

Little pollution data

"It kills our fish, destroys our skin, spoils our streams, we cannot drink," says Saturday Pirri, a local palm wine tapper.

"I have no livelihood left."

His father taught him to make palm wine but today the trees yield only a quarter of what they once provided.

BBC special coverage graphic

This week, the BBC is assessing the impact of the Louisiana oil spill not just in the US, but around the world. You can listen to and watch Caroline Duffield's reports from the Niger Delta throughout Tuesday on World Service Radio and BBC World News.

Kpor is a world away from the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Niger Delta, there is little independent monitoring of spills, and the companies themselves disclose virtually no data about their own pollution.

But, according to the Nigerian government, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000. Environmentalists believe spills - large and small - happen at a rate of 300 every year.

Site after site visited by the BBC - in both Bayelsa State and Ogoniland - had happened months before, and still not been cleaned up.

In May an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Akwa Ibom sprang a leak - one of several spills involving the company.

Environmentalists, journalists and local people described oil leaking for days in a massive spill.

Exxon dispute that. They say the leak was less than 300 barrels and that it was isolated on the same day.

The claims of the oil company, and the scepticism of environmentalists, are a good example of how little clear agreement there is about the size of spills.

"The Gulf of Mexico has drawn the attention of the whole world," says Erabanabari Kobah, a local environmentalist.

"Even the president of the United States must go there to see it. The people there get compensation. But here, you must go to court. You cannot win against the oil companies in court.'

The oil industry is accused of a sharp double standard in its operations - of taking advantage of Nigeria's lack of environment law and weak regulation, while observing higher standards of safety and maintenance overseas.

Dangerous and unpredictable

"It is a grave situation," says Kingsley Ogundu Chinda, environment commissioner in Rivers State.

"I blame the owners of the facilities. They are economical with the truth. They are not sincere in their practice. They are not sincere with the people."

He also says the government has failed to force companies to observe the law.

The joint ventures operating here are effectively Nigerian companies, operating under Nigerian law.

Bille 2 Awoba Flowstation The Bille 2 Awoba Flowstation is guarded by the military

Shell, for example, owns only a 30% stake in SPDC - the Shell Petroleum Development Company. The rest is Nigeria's national oil company, the NNPC, and smaller stakeholders.

The industry certainly has the spotlight - but not all of the power - nor all of the responsibility.

It is a dangerous and unpredictable business. Oil workers and oil contractors are regularly kidnapped for ransom. Heavily armed militants blow up pipelines, stealing oil in a process known as "bunkering".

Shell says most of the spills are caused by sabotage, and therefore beyond their control. It is impossible to verify.

"We take every precaution that a spill as a result of our operation is kept to an absolute minimum," says Mutiu Sunmonu, Shell's managing director in Nigeria.

"I can tell you that we have been able to achieve that in terms of the spills that are within our control."

Closely guarded?

But oil industry insiders also speak of derelict infrastructure. They talk of decades-old pipelines, rusting oil taps, corroding manifolds, and historic underinvestment reaching back decades.

We decided to examine flow stations and pipelines for ourselves.

"Getting close is not easy," shouts Evangelist Ibinabobo Sanipe, over the roar of the speedboat.

As national secretary of the Oil and Gas Host Communities Association, he is travelling with us.

Start Quote

Oil companies' business in Nigeria, and their participation here, is a force for good”

End Quote Mutiu Sunmonu Shell's managing director

"The military guard this place fiercely," he warns.

We bounce above the waves towards a column of dark smoke on the horizon, it is the Bille 2 Awoba Flowstation.

Before long, a big military vessel warns us to pull over, with our hands in the air.

But with just a few jokes and handshakes, the soldiers are smiling and joking. We continue our journey, having paid no bribe, and shown no identification.

Closer to the station, orange flames flicker through the trees, and the air is thick with fumes.

Another military patrol is just metres away, behind the station, but we're out of sight. For 25 minutes, we film the roaring gas flares, before two men in a canoe ask us to leave.

"It is very disturbing," says Evangelist Sanipe.

"If Shell is serious about stopping sabotage and oil spills, we would not have got so close."

But protecting oil facilities from attack by armed gangs is the responsibility of the Nigerian military.

In the past, spectacular attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria have threatened the country's energy security, and delivered shocks to the global oil markets.

The ease with which we reached the Awoba Flowstation will raise questions over the security of oil facilities.

It is clear that the desperate efforts to halt the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the US have prompted many Nigerians to look hard at their own environmental catastrophe.

There is a sense of anger, even among those a long way from the Delta.

Shell insists it is misplaced.

"I have no regrets," insists Mutiu Sunmonu, Shell's managing director.

"I am convinced that the oil companies' business in Nigeria, and their participation here, is a force for good."

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