Balabo-Ama is a fishing port in Okrika, in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Here, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria has an oil pipeline spread across the community, known as the Oil Mining Lease (OML) 18. The people of the community made a living from fishing many years ago. Today Balabo-Ama has gone extinct. The cause was a massive oil spill that destroyed their farmlands and polluted the river.
Despite polluting the entire village, Shell failed to clean up and proffer remediation to the environment.
Tamuno Iminbo Igiria said the spill happened over 20 years ago but, Shell has refused to compensate or clean up the village. Mr Igiria is a grandson of the leader of Balabo-Ama.
“The incident happened more than 20 years ago. Shell promised to pay compensation but, we have not heard from them. Our farmlands got destroyed, people could no longer catch fish, and everyone, including my late grandfather, left the village.”
Balabo-Ama is one of the numerous villages in Okrika that Shell polluted and refused to clean up. For more than 20 years, another community, Ofiomina-Ama, popularly known as Alakiri in Konijo town, suffered the same fate as Balabo-Ama.
Only accessible by waterways, Alakiri hosted Shell before the company sold its oil mining rights to Eroton.
In 2015, Shell announced its sale of OML 18 to Eroton for $737 million. Eroton was said to have bought a 45 per cent stake in the company, following a competitive bid round conducted by the Department of Petroleum Resources.
Before selling to Eroton, the pollution of Alakiri by Shell affected the indigenous people of Ofiomina-Ama, who depends mainly on fishing for their livelihood.
Lamenting, community leader David Ayanekaye said, “At no time did Shell attempt to clean up our environment or pay any compensation to the damages they caused.”
Though Shell left Alakiri six years ago, the community still feels the impact of its pollution. Its successor Eroton has continued to pollute the environment. Fisherfolks and commuters on the waterways remain victims of Shell and Eroton abuse.
Isaka, another community in Okrika that has existed for over 70 years, has suffered several pollutions from Shell.
Pipelines belonging to Shell and the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas company pass through the community. However, anytime there is a leakage, Shell refused to clean up or pay compensation.
Abel Benson, secretary to the traditional leaders of Isaka town, told Peoples Gazette that several efforts to make Shell clean up after their pollution, and pay damages, were rebuffed by the company.
Mr Benson said Shell would later claim to have handed the facilities over to Eroton to manage, insinuating that the pollutions they caused for years were no longer their responsibility.
Environmental activist and Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nnimmo Bassey, noted that whether Shell has left, the company should be held responsible for damages caused in the community.
“It does not matter that Shell sold its stake; the company should still be held responsible for polluting the environment. Of course, except Eroton agreed to inherit its damages,” Mr Bassey said.
“Come to think of it, who will want to buy the company’s problem, knowing that Shell pollution is expensive and has damaged several communities in the Niger Delta?” the environmental activist added.
Shell's legacy in Okrika
A resident in Alakiri, Fubara Raphael, said before the pollutions caused by Shell, every river in the community was fishable. Now, people travel more than 25 miles to fish.
Mr Raphael said that when there were high tides, “the spill would flow to the farmland of our neighbours at Amabakiri.” He noted that Shell had once paid for compensation some time in the 1990s. “I received only N4,000 for my fishing net, while some persons in the community received nothing.”
He added that since its inception, Shell had not conducted any cleanup, despite multiple pollutions.
Community leaders in Alakiri disclosed that members of the community were dying in silence due to the lack of interest by political leaders to intercede on their behalf.
Some members of the community development committee said they were hoping that Shell and the government would visit their community after the Ogoniland cleanup but were disappointed when that did not happen.
The committee is disappointed that “the company did not have the decency to visit us, and then they sold to Eroton. Thank God you are here to help us send the message to the world since we have nobody to speak for us.”
Shell’s pollution has destroyed farmlands and water in Ogoniland. Today, hopes are high that someday the community will return to its original state through a cleanup that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said should last 30 years to complete.
Before all the pollution, different types of fish inhabited the river. However, today, they have all gone extinct except for tilapia, said Helen Oputubeya, an Alakiri resident.
Ms Oputubeya has been fishing for seven years. She recalls how sales from her catch, which she used to feed her three children, has now been cut short due to the pollution by Shell. She lamented that due to the degradation of the waterways by Shell, survival was difficult.
Oil pollution is considered a “normal” occurrence in the Niger Delta region. Residents have adapted to the constant pollution since, despite multiple cries for help, nothing would happen. The majority of women in Okrika are looking for other sources of income.
Ms Oputubeya appealed to the government and other stakeholders to compel Shell to clean up the environment and help provide jobs for the community youth and women to reduce suffering.
38-year-old Loretta Sylvanus has been fishing for over 20 years. She deals in seafood such as crayfish and periwinkle and was making about N50,000 ($120) profit every month before the pollution.
With the pollution, “it became difficult to make N15,000 ($40).”
Tired of the situation, Ms Sylvanus said she hopes one day help will come to the community for her to start afresh.
Holding the few periwinkles she caught from the river, she sighed: “I cannot even do anything again. I am tired. I want the government to help us. I want to do business. With N200,000 ($350), I will open shop and sell things here.”
In the past, the community only had the issues of school and hospital to worry about; today, pollution is their main problem. Mercy Kezie, whose husband died in 2014, said she and other families find it hard to fend for themselves.
Mrs Kezie usually catches fish, dries, and transports them through the sea to markets in the capital city of Port Harcourt. Two square meals are now a problem for her family.
“As women, we no longer talk of buying clothes but food. Been here since morning and have not seen fish to catch.” Pointing to her oil-stained hands, Mrs Kezie said, “Take a look at my body; I suffer skin disease because I have to enter the oil-spilt river to fish.”
The only boat and net Mrs Kezie uses to fish no longer serves her well due to the damage caused by the oil spill. Now she wants a new fishing boat and net. To augment her fishing business, she is looking to raise some cash to start a petty trade.
Have host communities benefited from Shell and Eroton?
On their websites, both Shell and Eroton said they were working with host communities on benefits, including a safe environment. Despite millions of dollars made from the community, Shell has not fulfilled its corporate social responsibility, Alakiri and several other host communities in Okrika alleged.
Alakiri residents said after a costly protest, Shell compensated them with water. “During the protest, Shell officials came with security, arrested, and beat us,” said one of the villagers. “Later, a senior white official in the company came with a traditional leader in the head town of Okrika to apologise, and that was how we got the water and light.”
Sample Aaron, community development committee leader of Isaka community, said the people of Isaka have never benefited from Shell, despite series of pollutions.
“Even the scholarship we heard Shell gives to host communities, our children have never benefited,” secretary to the traditional ruler of Isaka, Abel Benson, told The Gazette.
Mr Benson noted that the community has written Shell several letters but got no response. Instead, the company formed a habit of denying spills and attributing them to sabotage.
“As I speak now, there is a spill at Orubiri station that happened sometime in March or April this year,” explained Mr Benson, “The company denied it. They just came and said it was an act of sabotage.”
An agency in name only
The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), as a federal government body monitors oil spills and ensures compliance with the law. It also oversees cleanup processes.
NOSDRA has continued to receive criticism from environmental activists and oil-producing communities over its failure to carry out its responsibility in line with the Nigerian environment law.
Stephen Obodoekwe, Centre for Environment Human Rights and Development programme director, said NOSDRA has been reluctant to carry out its primary assignment.
Established to detect oil spills, ensure polluters are fined, and instructed to clean up polluted areas, ironically, the agency relies on the polluting companies to function. This dilemma that NOSDRA finds itself has severely hampered environmental justice.
Mr Obodoekwe said NOSDRA does not respond as expected and mostly depends on communities to detect oil spills for them. He said the worst part was to do their work, “they depend on oil polluters such as Shell, Agip, Chevron for their logistics.”
He added that if NOSDRA were detecting oil spills and being responsive as the agency ought to be, “there would not be oil spills that should have lasted for several years.”
Accusing it of always conniving to upturn pollution matters to favour the companies, he said officials of NOSDRA often fly to polluted sites in choppers belonging to the polluters. “This was another reason the agency has failed to do its work effectively,” he said.
The environmental activist said, aside from their salaries, the Nigerian government must ensure that adequate funds are allocated and provided for NOSDRA to function and aid logistics.
NOSDRA has yet to respond to emails sent by The Gazette regarding the communities’ allegations.
Data from the website of a Nigerian oil spill monitor run by NOSDRA revealed that between 2009 to 2014, Shell had four incidents with 16.00 barrels of spill in communities in Okrika.
However, figures on the website are conflicting and sometimes inaccurate. The agency depends on volunteers and polluters to report the number of spills.
Several activists and host communities continue to lament this slow response in detecting and giving accurate figures.
Between 2018 and 2020, Eroton recorded three incidents with 9.00 barrels of oil spills in Okrika communities. From February 2016 to March 2021, 15 oil spill accidents were reported, with 24.27 barrels in Rivers, where Eroton operates the OML 18 in more than five communities.
NOSDRA admitted that it did not record oil spills before 2006, as details are still under review. However, figures from the agency record showed that Shell spilt over 9,000 barrels of oil in 596 accidents in the entire Rivers State in the period under review.
Mr Bassey urged community heads to cooperate in protecting their lands from pollution and ensure polluters are held responsible. He charged the leaders not to betray the community by accepting stipends to derail the pursuit of justice.
Executive Director of Environmental Rights Activists (ERA), Chima Williams, urged the community to sue for damages.
“They can sue Shell, but it depends on if the company had an agreement that Eroton will take over everything, including the polluted areas. The affected communities can consult a lawyer to guide them on how to go about this,” stated Mr Williams.
Water quality analysis
When the affected waterway was visited on May 27, 2021, it was polluted. Security operatives employed by the company were seen in boats, wielding guns, making it impossible to get water samples from the area without risking attack.
Water samples were later taken the same day from a high tide that washed off the riverbank of Ofionima.
The sample analysed from the plant anatomy and physiology research laboratory in the University of Port Harcourt confirmed a saltwater conductivity of 7120mg and a TDS of 3560.00, against the World Health Organisation limit of 1000.0.
The recommended and accepted saltwater PH for aquatic animals is between 8.0mg to 8.4mg for optimum health; this depends on the species since some fishes might require a higher PH level.
While the water from the Ofionima river, analysed at the F-Dous Integrated Health Services, had a PH level of 7.2, that of the university laboratory had a PH level of 7.10.
Fish expert Gloria Daminabo said a low PH level in saltwater might harm some fish species by reducing their growth. Ms Daminabo said while some might survive, “the higher the salinity of the water, the better for the fish.”
Further analyses revealed that the water in Ofionima has a high-level concentration of 13500.00mg of chloride against the WHO recommended standard of 250mg.
It could not be immediately ascertained if the cause was due to polluted water. However, peer-reviewed research says a high chloride level in water can be harmful to some aquatic animals.
Ms Daminabo noted that chemicals from oil spills are ruining the environment, specifically noting that “due to the chemicals, the fishes would be unable to breathe well and find the river uncomfortable.”
Despite the weighty allegations, Shell declined to address specifics of the crisis when reached for comments.
“SPDC completed the assignment of its 30 per cent interest in oil mining lease (OML) 18 and related facilities in the Eastern Niger Delta in March 2015,” Shell spokesman Bamidele Odugbesan said in an e-mailed statement to The Gazette. “May I, therefore, ask that you direct your enquiries to the current owners/operator.”
Eroton did not return repeated requests seeking comments from The Gazette for this story.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by the People's Gazette Nigeria on 5 August 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Workers were contracted to clean up an oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta / Credit: Ed Kashi via Wikimedia Commons.