ANALYSIS: Oil Communities: Military Polluting Waters, Risking Our Health

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…Otuaro Insists on National Summit to address challenge


The Deputy Governor of Delta State, Deacon Kingsley Burutu Otuaro recently embarked on a helicopter-driven overview/assessment of sites impacted by illegal oil bunkering and alleged military pollution in Warri North and Warri South-West LGAs and returned a damning verdict: “environmental despoliation”, “worrisome”, “disgusting” and “unacceptable”.

 The alleged military contribution to environmental pollution through explosion of vessels containing illegal crude oil is seen as a disturbing twist that the Deputy Governor’s visit apparently helped push to the front burner.

OTUARO’S LAMENTATION

Otuaro’s aerial assessment visit to Macaraba and Olero Oil Fields in Warri South-West and Warri North LGAs respectively in Delta State was occasioned by complaints of the people. Otuaro, accompanied by Chairman Warri North LGA, Hon. Aduge Okorodudu, and Hon. Kelly Penawou, Special Adviser to Governor Okowa, was greeted by apparently informed protesters bearing placards at stop-overs at Gbokoda in Olero Field area and Okerenkoko. He empathised at Gbokoda: “The livelihood sources of the people have been so impacted by illegal bunkering activities that have despoiled the area”. He added: “On behalf of Senator Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, we would do something about your catalogue of requests. We may not be able to do all but we’ll interface with your leaders and know what to prioritise going into the next budgetary preparations. Thank you for your warm and peaceful atmosphere, in spite of your challenges, for oil exploration and production to take place”.

At Okerenkoko, the Deputy Governor, who chairs the Delta State Advocacy Committee Against Vandalism of Oil and Gas Facilities stated: “It is an ill wind that is blowing nobody any good. We have heard complaints that security agents who are of course on their statutory responsibility of ensuring that these criminal activities are stamped out, are helplessly destroying these arrested or seized badges, boats or vessels laden with illegal products such that they are spilled into the environment and that in itself occasions much more impact on the environment. It is not in keeping with global best practices. And I think on that note, we need a national discourse because what we saw is worrisome and disgusting. We need to think through this problem that has endangered and pauperised the people”.

ILL-WIND THAT BLOWS NOBODY ANY GOOD

The crime of illegal oil bunkering/oil theft and the results of pollution by the explosion of illegal oil vessels/boats is as Otuaro posited “an ill wind that blows nobody any good”. Neither the militants/communities nor the military and the Nigerian nation is best served by the crime.Are the communities worst hit? At the Olero Oil Field area, Mr. Simeon K. Iluwa cast his people in the mould of an endangered species: “Some of the health challenges and complications suffered due to petroleum hydrocarbons in our waters include but not limited to renal failure, skin rashes and irritations, respiratory system disorders, miscarriages in women, infertility and childhood/birth defects”.

The foregoing list of health challenges of the people may not be exhaustive going by assertions by environmental rights activists at a meeting in Port-Harcourt (PH) last week at the instance of Oilwatch Africa to deliberate on indiscriminate pollution of the ecosystem and the continual exploration of fossil fuel. At the PH meet, Nnimmo Bassey said: “Research findings tell us that babies in Nigeria whose mother live near an oil spill site before becoming pregnant are twice as likely to die in the first month of life. One of the studies making a link between environmental pollution and infant mortality rates in Niger Delta shows mothers living within 10 kilometres of an oil spill incident have doubled the neonatal mortality rates and have the health of surviving children severely compromised. While the babies have no chance of surviving or living a healthy life, oil barons dance to the bank celebrating their slippery loot”.

Iluwa had noted that their waters and farming sources of livelihood had been stamped out by pollution to which they demanded a stop. Other immediate demands include the supply of drinkable water, provision of secondary and tertiary health facilities to address health challenges plus trainings on fish pond farming and on use of trawlers.

The chairman of Okerenkoko Federated community, Mr Kingsley Akpos Oturubo noted that “the idea of burning crude oil boats and spilling undiluted or refined products into the waters is not a better idea. Spills from Crude oil vessels exploded by Security agents, into waters had polluted same such that fishing activity was no longer productive. The situation has caused untold hardship that can make a people go into extinction”.

Speaking on effect of spills from explosions of illegal oil vessels, Mrs. Ebiasuode Aramisi, a 65 year old, said: “The burning of the illegal oil vessels have greatly affected us by way of polluting the rivers beyond normal. We can no longer fish. We are hungry as our source livelihood is destroyed/polluted. Federal Government save us”.

NATIONAL ECONOMIC LOSS

The national economy is also at the receiving end of the ill wind of illegal bunkering which is said to be largely associated with breaches of critical oil infrastructure with such breaches accentuated in times of militant activities.

In 2016, the Deputy Governor of Delta State, Deacon Kingsley Otuaro as chairman of Delta State Advocacy Committee Against Vandalism of Oil and Gas Facilities had to tour oil bearing kingdoms in the delta, amidst resurgence of militant activities, to preach peace and protection of oil facilities which had been vandalised leading to low production output which was believed to have contributed to the recent national recession. 

OIL THEFT: A COLLECTIVE GUILT?

The fact that illegal oil bunkering and refining activities is a crime perpetrated by some locals is so harped on that it is taken for granted that it is only locals that are involved in the vice. But some locals have been heard to say “the military are in fact the real oil bunkering moguls who put up a show of destruction of illegal refining sites to hide their involvement to the public”. Some said those illegal operators who grease the palm of the security agents have a field day as are bunkering facilities wholly or partly owned by the military men!”. The proximity of the sites despoiled by oil spills/illegal refining spots and the military checkpoints give credence to the claim of the locals.

Nigerians may not have also forgotten so soon the saga few years ago of the impounded MT African Pride vessel laden with illegal crude which disappeared at the harbour under the custody of the Nigerian Navy.

The foregoing scenarios may have informed the opinion of Russ Feingold, who in 2009 as Chairman of United States Senate sub-committee on Africa, as quoted in Security and News Makers magazine Vol. 4 No. 14, 1st Qtr. 2009: “The Nigerian government’s response to the Niger Delta Crisis—Sporadic military campaigns, empty promises of development, and half-hearted attempts at dialogue has only made matters worse. In many cases, there are definite but ambiguous links between the military and militants each out for personal gain as the political economy of war perpetuates the illicit nature of these activities. In addition, the military campaigns to date have only served to provoke the insurgency, leading to fighting that has left civilians killed and displaced”.

He added, “The lack of clear distinction between the security forces of the oil companies and the Nigerian military feed communities’ perception that the two are interchangeable”.

ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION: THE BLAME GAME CONTINUES

As with oil theft, the military may not be extricated from blame of pollution of the environment with alleged spills from the explosion of badges containing illegal crude oil, as are the activities of illegal bunkering and refinery operators. Even the oil companies are avowedly not saints in polluting the environment.

The Olero Field communities led by Mr Simeon Illuwa asserted as they alleged: “We vehemently condemn illegal bunkering and refining activities in our environment. It is obvious that government is making partial efforts at stopping illegal bunkering activities in our area. Nevertheless, the approach of burning recovered stolen petroleum products by the military has caused more harm than good. Our environment has been degraded, polluted and devastated due to illegal bunkering and related activities”. Mr Simeon Bebenimibo, an opinion leader in Okerenkoko sees military pollution of the environment as ironical: “You (the military) came to fight illegal bunkering partly because of the spill on and pollution of the environment, you are also burning and destroying these same boats and causing spills on the same area, that is another pollution”. 

Indeed, explosion of badges with attendant spill of oil contents into the river may have been the settled practice of the military in security operations in the Niger Delta for well over a decade. Almost two decades later, the military has yet to come up with a better method of disposing illegal crude. In months following 2003, Major-Gen Elias Zamani was commander of the military Joint Task Force (JTF) in charge of Operation Restore Hope—a codename, then, for the military operation to safeguard oil and its infrastructure in the Niger Delta. The codenames have though since morphed to Operation Pulo Shield (Pulo being Ijaw word for Oil) to Delta Safe. During Zamani’s watch, a foremost Nongovernmental Organization (NGO), the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) led by Hon. Bello Oboko, accused the JTF of causing environmental despoliation in the Gbaramatu Kingdom area by exploding badges containing illegal crude oil and spilling same into the rivers. The billowing smoke and soot caused its own danger to human health. Oboko had posited: “Gbaramatu Kingdom is by no existing law a designated dump site for illegal oil badge explosions and hence pollution to the environment”.

Adam Vaughan in “Oil in Nigeria: a history of spills, fines and fights for rights”, published in The Guardian, noted that Shell, a major oil company in Nigeria admitted its guilt in pollution of the environment: “Hundreds of minor court cases are brought each year in Nigeria over oil spills and pollution. Last year, Shell admitted spilling 14,000 tonnes of crude oil in the creeks of the Niger Delta in 2009, double the year before and quadruple that of 2007”, the article noted.

The comments of Coordinator of Joint Media Campaign Centre (JMCC) of the military Joint Task Force (JTF), Major Jonah Eromosele, are still being awaited. He had said over a week that the JTF would soon address the press on the allegation of environmental pollution and possibly on whether the military had come up with a better and acceptable way to dispose illegal crude than still ongoing spill of seized oil into pollution of the environment.

A NATIONAL DISCOURSE TO HALT THE DRIFT?

The blame game continues, so does the drift of the environment and associated danger to human health. How will disposal of seized or recovered stolen crude oil in vessels be done in an acceptable way or in keeping with global best practices? Who handles the remediation of the despoiled environment? Is the FG or the oil companies vicariously responsible for pollution allegedly caused by the military in service? Who reports the crime of the military to who? Is there need for legal reforms to address specific military pollution? Questions!

“We’ll have to have possibly a summit to think through. There must be a solution. We cannot afford to continue this way. We are enjoining the communities to exercise patience as the government is seriously looking into these complaints”, Otuaro posited.

This report was contributed by Bulou Kosin, Senior Special Assistant to Delta State Deputy Governor, Deacon Kingsley Otuaro.



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