Despite the regulatory agencies ascribing root cause of the last November oil spill at Oil Mining License (OML 29) operated by Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production at Santa Barbara Wellhead 1 in Nembe local Government Area of Bayelsa State to sabotage and external human interference, the Bayelsa State Government and the host community have rejected the finding, linking the cause of the spillage to equipment/maintenance failure.
Between November and December, a very devastating spillage had occurred in the wellhead, with attendant health and economic effects on the locals and residents of not only Nembe but surrounding communities.
The situation had raised concerns among stakeholders, state and the federal government as it took the operators over a month to contain the spillage and restore normal life to the community. Though the effort to contain the spillage paid off late December, its negative effects on the health of the people cannot be overruled.
Oil spillage and gas flaring have been the major problem in virtually all the communities in Niger Delta region as stakeholders claim that multinational oil companies and government are only interested in the resources and not the well being of the people and the host communities.
Recently, there has been black soot infiltrating in the air across the states in the region, which experts ascribed to incessant oil spillage and illegal refining. Almost every community in the Niger Delta region has had their own experience about the devastating effect of the oil spill.
The Bayelsa State Government, the operator of OML 29, the Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production and the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), as well as the Nigeria Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC), carried out a joint investigation visit to the spill site and came out with different findings.
While the Aiteo, NOSDRA and NUPRC claimed that the oil spill was caused by an external human interference with the oil wellhead, which resulted in sabotage, representatives of the Bayelsa State Government, Nembe Local Government Council and the affected host community claimed that the incident was due to equipment failure.
The Bayelsa State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Biriyai Dambo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), who is also the chairman of the technical committee on the oil spillage, noted in a statement in Yenagoa that during the joint investigation, representatives of the Bayelsa State Ministry of Environment, Nembe Local Government Council and the host community, found and declared the cause of the spillage to be equipment/maintenance failure.
He also disclosed that the state government would take all appropriate steps to pursue environmental justice for itself and the affected communities to put an end to the perennial pollution in the environment.
He said, “While the combined team of NOSDRA, NUPRC and Aiteo claimed that the spillage was caused by an external human interference with the oil wellhead, representatives of the Bayelsa State Government/Ministry of Environment, Nembe Local Government Council and the affected host community observed that accessories/instruments of the wellhead to be inspected had been removed and replaced, which amounted to tampering with and concealing the equipment and evidence.
“There had been similar incidents of oil spillage, though of lesser magnitude, from the same Santa Barbara Wellhead 1 in OML 29 in 2018 and 2019, which Aiteo had previously admitted. Till date, there has been no remediation nor safeguards against future recurrence put in place or enforced by Aiteo and NOSDRA respectively over the said spills as demanded by the affected communities, until this major blowout happened in November 2021. We were shocked to note that on the day of this latest joint investigation, when asked about these previous incidents at the exact same wellhead, Aiteo denied and NOSDRA kept silent.
“The government of Bayelsa State states that the cause of the spill is equipment failure, and shall take all appropriate steps to pursue environmental justice for itself and the affected communities to put an end to the perennial pollution of our environment through reckless and irresponsible oilfield practice that is condoned by a weak or compromised regulatory system” he said.
Already, some indigenes of the affected community have raised concerns over the environmental hazard the oil spill has caused, as well as the negative impact on the health of the people.
According to Preye Romiel, an indigene of the community, “The thing is affecting us because the whole river is polluted. The oil is everywhere. The spill was on for over a month, so our water is filled with oil.
“All the fishing settlements around that territory are affected. The content of the oil was so much that the whole water is totally polluted. No way to use the water at all. We cannot also fish because all fishes have run away from that area.”
Another indigene, Tombara Dressman, who ruled out the idea of sabotage, said he stood by the findings of the state government committee which linked the spill to equipment failure.
He said, “That wellhead has not been producing for years now. It is the pressure from it that caused the spill. That platform was bought from shell in 2015 and they have not been able to maintain those equipment. They have been there for decades.
“The pressure from that head busted that thing because it has not been producing; and it has been stagnant. If they were using it, that pressure will not be there.
“The oil has spilled to other communities because the water has low and high tide.”
Mrs Joy Wingemi, in her reaction disclosed, “The women cannot go to the river again to bath or wash our clothes again. The river is now full of oil. We can’t fish again, and it is causing serious hunger.
“Our children are now hungry because we used the fish to cook for them, but now, we cannot fish. We can’t even go near the river again.”
A medical doctor from the Federal Medical Centre, Yenagoa and onetime chairman of the Association of Resident Doctors, FMC chapter, Dr Ebimobowei Onini, said oil spillages had serious health implications on the people living in the environment.
He said, “As a respiratory physician, these things are not farfetched. First and foremost, the health implication can be divided into immediate effect, medium term effect and long term effect. The immediate effect will be on the environment, for instance, environmental degradation, which affects the sources of the livelihood of persons living around that environment.
“Farming will be stopped, fishing and those stuff will be impeded to a very high level, so people will not be able to fish and do some things that will give them hope. And of course, once people are handicapped, poverty comes, and with poverty, the next thing is disease.
“You know that crude oil contains a lot of substances. A lot of petroleum products are embedded inside crude oil and each of them has their effect on different parts of the body, but in general, we can consider the spill that is being spilled as a solvent that people inhale.
“When somebody inhales that kind of thing, the person is likely to have upper respiratory hyper sensitivity. Some people can start with sneezing, cough; and that way, because of the nature of these chemicals, they will go and hamper some form of process in the body that will damage the immune system.
“So it will expose these individuals to something like either upper respiratory tract infection. That’s mainly for adults. It can expose children to lower respiratory tract infection. So all manner of infections can easily gain entry into the respiratory system and begin to cause diseases. So you see people having cough, sneezing and different kinds of respiratory problems.
“In the long term, these are solvents. So when they are inhaled into the lungs, some of them will gain access into the blood and they will be there for years, causing different kinds of problem. They can even alter the way the body works; that is the metabolism of the body. By that, they can change the way the cells function, then the cells begin to divide autonomously and become immortal. And they can cause cancer. Most of the time, when we hear people having blood and cancer on different parts of the body, these petroleum products can be responsible for that.
“When you see people after years of oil spillage having differ problems – chest, cancer, heart, kidney – it is because of some of these chemicals since they serve as poison to the body and cause a lot of health implication on whoever is exposed to these things.
“The spillage can cause any kind of disease because people may not notice some of these things immediately. But over time, it starts having effects on different parts of the body, even on the reproductive system. It can affect any part of the body. It is very possible that people can have infertility as a result of exposure to some of these chemicals.
“It is really a very serious problem; and it calls for an emergency measure.
“Relief materials, such as mosquito nets, hygiene and sanitary kits, disinfectants, food materials, are being mobilised to the immediate communities impacted by the spill.
“Aiteo officials are closely monitoring all activities related to the affected communities, such as feeding, lighting, hygiene, drinking water and medical requirements with the help of local associations.
“Aiteo safety and security and HSE teams are monitoring the quality of air every six hours to ascertain the livability of the areas adjoining ground zero. The Aiteo is mobilising additional relief materials to the affected communities.”
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