Fishing in oily waters: Bodo’s long, painful wait for pollution clean-up
Dejection was written all over his face like man who had just returned from a futile journey.
Indeed, Mpari had gone fishing for two and half hours in the oily creeks, but like every other day, he only came back with few crabs and crayfish, which he would sell for about N200 to fish merchants who were already waiting for fishermen by the bank of the oil spill-ravaged river.
Looking at the crabs covered in oily sheen with a strong smell of petroleum, Mpari said: “This is all I got in the past two and half hours of my journey today.”
Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) had claimed that it has started the clean up of Bodo oil spill sites, but the condition of living of the people, showed otherwise.
The Federal Government had also in June 2016, flagged off the clean up of the entire Ogoni creeks and mangroves ravaged by crude oil spills, which has made life unbearable for the local people.
The Guardian visit to Ogoniland showed that the affected communities were still covered with black thick crude oil, which means no major clean-up has been carried out, thereby exposing the residents to grave danger.
In 2008 and 2009, two incidents of massive oil spills from the Trans-Niger pipeline devastated the Bodo coastline destroying every living thing in the river.
While the community was still dealing with the spill, another from the Trans-Niger pipeline at Koloma-Zommadom road rocked the community, this time beyond imagination.
Bodo and other neighbouring communities mangroves and farmlands were heavily polluted with crude oil spill, that destroyed opportunities, made fishing impossible, and ruined income that could have come from other aquatic resources.
Though compensation has been paid to affected individuals ten years after the spill, the water still remains dark and slippery, the mangroves covered with black mud and the creeks, which are now a mixture of crude and water, have now become the only source of seafood classified as dangerous to health.
Responding to the concern about the health implications of consuming such produce from polluted waters, Mpari, said: “We have no choice. This is what we eat and sell. Despite the spill, we still fish and take our bath in this polluted water. If you say we should stop selling and eating from the water, do you have an alternative for us”?
With no opportunity to attend college due to poverty, this is the life Mpari has come to know and accept. “I do this every day. I have no other source of livelihood.
Fishing is what our fathers taught us as young men to do in this community. If you take fishing away from us, you have succeeded in ruining our lives”, he said, smiling as he has come to accept this way of life.
Members of Bodo community had filed a lawsuit against Shell in a London High Court in March 2012 and received a £55 million out-of-court settlement and compensation from the company in 2015.
The community had achieved this uncommon feat, working with a pro-development non-governmental organisation, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) and a United Kingdom based law firm, Leigh Day.
On the payment of the fund, It was agreed that £35 million will be split between those impacted by the spill who will each receive £2,200 (about N600,000) and £20 million will go to the community for the execution of legacy programmes and projects.
Unlike some other youths in the community, Mpari did not get the N600,000 from Shell due to his inability to produce voters registration card, which was the means of identification before payment.
The oil spill, which was described as the biggest ever, did not only destroy the streams and mangroves, it also wiped off various commercial fish ponds set up by individuals in the community.
“I wish the spill did not happen. I wish my fish pond was not destroyed, and I wish we did not have to inhale the stench from the oil spill in the last 10 years,” 67 years old Elder Agbibel Mkpee, said, eyes stained with tears.
Mkpee lost his fish pond to the spill in 2008 and life has become miserable for the old man whose house is just beside the pond that is already covered with thick dark crude oil.
Walking with his waist bent and pointing to the pond, Mpee said: “I built this pond at my young age and I had planned to use the proceeds to send my children to school before it was destroyed by the spill. Life has been very tough for me and my family, because we used to rely on the pond for feeding and general upkeep.”
Mkpee has been described as one of the most affected individuals by oil spill in the community. “I was earning a lot of money from fish farming. I was earning at least N100, 000 monthly from N50, 000 fingerlings. The business was very lucrative before the spill occurred,” he said.
Though Mkpee was one of the beneficiaries of the compensation paid by Shell to the community, the N1.8 million he received from Shell was used to provide shelter for his family.
Mkpee who had 15 children but lost seven due to poverty and diseases, lived in a mud house where he and his family inhaled toxic fumes in the last 10 years before the compensation was paid.
Though, the house has not been completed, the Elder said: “This is better than where I used to stay with my family.
The spill ruined my business and our lives. We had no money to feed, no other business to engage in. Life became miserable.”
Despite receiving N1.8 million from Shell, Mkpee said he wants his pond back. “I appreciate our people who fought for us to get compensated, but my fish pond is worth more than that,” he said.
Another fish pond owner, Pastor Christian Kpandei was earning about N15,000 per day from his fish pond before the spill that totally destroyed his investment happened.
“I was earning so much from my fish pond before the spill. I was not rearing only one type of fish. I had tilapia, mullet and had customers coming to buy from within and outside Bodo,” he said.
Kpandei was able to raise some money to build a concrete pond, but has not been able to raise the fund needed to buy fingerlings. “I have managed to build a pond at the back of my house, but there is no money to buy fingerlings and feeds,” he lamented.
Just like other local Bodo residents affected by the spill, Kpandei has not been able to send his children to school, as his only source of livelihood was eroded by spill.
Though he got compensated, Kpandei committed the money to renovate his house because; having a roof over his head is the most important need for him.
The Guardian visited the popular Bodo market, which used to be a centre for fish business. The market was filled with different species of frozen imported fish.
“If you want to go fishing or to pick periwinkles, which is the major occupation for women in the community, you have to paddle your canoe for hours through several rivers to where there is lesser spill to either pick periwinkles or fish”, says Madam Monica Kporuve Koroba, popularly known as Periwinkle Company, due to her expertise in picking of periwinkle.
“Our men can paddle canoes for over five hours from the community to as far as Bonny Island waters just to catch fish and many of them had on several occasions come back with injuries sustained from attacks they received from people who saw them as intruders,” she said.
Madam Koroba took The Guardian reporter on a tour of the polluted waters across the community, and there was no sign of fish or periwinkles throughout the one-hour canoe ride. This is what our men and women go through every day since the oil spill happened,” she said.
Periwinkle merchants used to come from Port Harcourt City to buy the sea produce from Madam Koroba, whose only source of livelihood was the earning from periwinkles sale.
“You see, I became the bread winner of my family when I lost my husband some years back. My children and I used to go to the mangrove to pick periwinkles and other aquatic produce.”
She said most of the periwinkles traders in major Ogoni markets in Port Harcourt, Onne and Bori originated from Bodo Creek.
None of Madam Koroba’s four children has opportunity to attend university due to lack of fund, except the last one, thanks to the compensation received by the family from Shell.
But, no amount of compensation can restore the community, the waterfront, the mangrove and the farmlands and creeks, Madam Koroba said. “We want Shell to hasten up the clean-up exercise. We want our creeks back to their former state and we want our farmland back”.
Bodo Community in Gokana Local Government area of Rivers State with a population of 69,000 people engages in fishing and farming.
The mangrove forests and waterways that line Bodo Creeks were an integral component of the community’s traditional sources of livelihood.
For many years, mangroves provided the community with shoreline protection, which were grounds for fish breeding.
But all that changed when two separate oil spills, for which Royal Dutch Shell claimed responsibility, hit Bodo Creek in August 2008 killing all the fishes in the waters and aquatic creatures in the mangroves.
According to Amnesty International, the Bodo oil spills were due to equipment failure. “In theory, the fact that the company accepted that the spills were caused by operational problems should have resulted in swift and comprehensive action to address them.”
Dr. Nenibarini Zabbey, Environmental Scientist, said the disaster at Bodo should not have happened if Shell had immediately stopped the spills and cleaned up the oil, the impact on people’s lives and the environment would not have escalated to the level of complete devastation that prevails today.
Zabbey added that the Trans-Niger Pipelines transporting crude oil from the hinterlands through Ogoni to Bonny crude oil terminal present potential threats of oil spillages.
The clean-up issues
The creeks looked dark and not even a single bird was seen flying above the oil spill site, which still emit offensive odour of petroleum. Abandoned canoes and boats littered the bank of the oily rivers with no sign of serious fishing activities in the area.
Years after the Spills in Bodo, the Community was yet to be cleaned up. This delay was blamed on various factors including the lack of unity in the community, particularly among its leadership. It was also blamed on a stalemate between the community and the SPDC.
But a ray of hope for clean-up and remediation came when an Ambassador from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Bert J. Ronhaar, visited the creeks and saw first-hand the level of devastation in Bodo community.
The BMI process took off in April 2013, following this visit to the impacted creeks. Ronhaar, with the support of Dutch Embassy initiated a process to end the stalemate .
Though officials of Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI) claimed that the phase one of the clean up process has started, the oil spill site still looked unsafe to a first-time visitor.
The Chairman of Council of Chiefs, Mene Leema Hyacinth, said that in 2015, Shell and representatives of the Bodo Community came to an agreement on the clean-up process, which was to be overseen by the former Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria.
According to him, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on a plan that would see international contractors carry out the clean up with the assistance of 400 youths from Bodo who would be trained for the job.
“They actually took our youths for two-day training. But, we were surprised that they came with different set of people the day they came to commence the clean-up exercise. This is the reason why we decided to chase them away on that day”.
He said that the community is eager for Shell to clean up the environment. “We have only seen them scooping crude oil from the surface of the water and clearing of debris, but no tangible work has been done so far by the contractors,” he added.
He insisted that the impact would have been less if Shell had responded immediately the spill happened and cleaned up the environment. “Shell ignored our plea for clean-up and remediation exercise for eight years despite accepting responsibility for the oil spill.”
But, the Former Chairman of the Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI), Inemo Samiama, refuted claims by the community, saying that Shell has actually started with the phase one of the clean-up exercise.
According to him, BMI is mediating between SPDC and the Bodo community to ensure effective clean-up of the entire oil spill site.
Samiama said: “The BMI process started more than four and half years ago and our objective was to get Bodo community and SPDC around the table and dialogue on ways to carry out the clean-up of the polluted sites which has actually started contrary to what some people may have told you.
“Shell appointed international contractors to carry out the clean-up work. The first step is to remove crude oil from the water surface before restoring landscapes that were damaged by the spill.
“I am pleased to say despite the challenges along the way, the clean-up exercise has started and it’s not over yet. We are almost done with the first phase of the clean-up and about to commence the second phase.
“The clean-up is in three phases, the first phase is basically to remove crude oil from the surface of the water. The next phase is going to be the actually clean-up of the area and after that, the restoration phase.”
Samiama said that the clean-up project was awarded to two contractors. “While one of the contractors performed extremely well, the second one encountered some hitches along the line, but he is in the process of re-mobilising. He should be back in the field in one month to complete the clean-up,” he added.
The community had expressed worries over the ability of the local contractors to handle the clean up.
Samiama insisted that the contractors were selected based on merit, adding that BMI will ensure that the entire spill site receives the desired attention.
Reacting to the allegation that the community youths were not involved in the first phase of the clean-up, Samiama explained: “The correct information is that when the clean-up exercise started, all the 400 youths trained, plus more, were engaged in the clean-up exercise.
The two contractors would need about 800 youths for the second phase and they are going to be from this community,” he added.
Spokesperson for the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), Joseph Obari said: “Clean-up of the 2008 operational spills at Bodo restarted in September 2017, with the re-mobilisation of the two international contractors utilising the 400 youths trained for the exercise.
“The clean-up exercise has been on course and we are delighted that, after years of significant engagement with the communities and other stakeholders, managed by the Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI), clean-up and remediation activities have begun in line with the Bodo clean-up Memorandum of Understanding, which was agreed to in 2015.
“Significant progress has been made in the removal of free-phase oil (oil on land and water surface) by the 400 trained community personnel working with the two international companies involved in the clean up of Bodo as part of the January 2015 £55 million settlement agreement for the two highly regrettable operational spills of 2008.
“But re-pollution of the area remains a major challenge. Since the 2008 spills, the activities of illegal oil refiners and oil thieves have caused widespread oil pollution, that sometimes re-impact sites already cleaned up.
It is now difficult to accurately distinguish spills from the two sources neither is it possible to estimate with any confidence, the volume of the original operational spills”.
Speaking on the entire clean up of the Ogoniland, President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Legborsi Pyagbara, called on the concerned authorities to ensure quick clean up of the affected communities.
He decried the high rate of recorded deaths in the whole of Ogoniland. “Ogoni people are dying everyday and they are still drinking from the polluted water because there is no alternative for them.
Pyagbara decried the delay in effective take-off of Ogoni clean-up flagged off by the Federal Government. He also expressed reservation over the delay in the provision of the emergency measures included in the report on Ogoniland by the United Nations.
He lamented that Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) is not being effectively empowered to ensure that it delivers on its core mandate to remediate the polluted Ogoni environment and restore livelihoods.
Pyagbara raised alarm over the renewal of pipelines in Ogoniland, adding that the environmental impact assessment of the area should have been conducted before the resumption of any form of oil exploration in the area.
He said: “MOSOP has presented this case before the United Nations Human Rights Council last November 2017 and also initiated an online global campaign against the laying of the pipelines in Ogoniland.
“This has generated over 2,000 signatories of support from all over the world. MOSOP had also petitioned the National Assembly and the National Human Rights Commission to intervene in this matter”.
Shell’s alleged attempt to strike out Bodo’s legal right to clean-up
Despite arrangements to ensure clean up of the communities in Ogoniland, criminal activities including sabotage, theft and artisanal refineries have become a source of concern to the general clean-up programme.
Illegal refining of petroleum products still thrives in the Niger Delta Creeks. Nigerian Navy in the last 10 months have destroyed over 700 illegal refineries littered in the Niger Delta creeks, which continue to re-pollute the environment.
The Project Director, Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI), Mike Cowing, expressed concern over the issue of re-pollution of the environment as a result of new spill that may result from crude oil theft.
But Partner Leigh Day, Daniel Leader, accused Shell of trying to strike out Bodo’s legal right to clean up on the basis that the delay was the fault of the community members.
Leader said: “The progress has been painfully slow. It is the community’s view that this has been because of the way in which the Bodo Mediation Initiative has operated by excluding the Community’s legal representatives from the process and operating without proper transparency.
“This led to confusion, division and mistrust within the Community. We have been maintaining considerable pressure via the Courts in London and Shell is now finally cleaning up but they continue to refuse to provide any reports to Leigh Day as the community’s legal representatives.
They have also tried to strike out Bodo’s legal right to clean up on the basis that the delay was the fault of community members”.
Chief Hyacinth blamed Shell for the activities of crude oil theft in Ogoniland. “Shell has security operatives along all its pipelines network in the whole of the Niger Delta. Our people have no hand in the oil bunkering going on the creeks.
There is no way the pipelines can be destroyed and crude spilled without the knowledge of the security forces employed by Shell to guard its pipelines.
Shell knows the issues with its pipelines and also has solution to it. If they really want to clean up the polluted environment, they should go ahead and do so,” he said.
The Federal Government recently flagged off the establishment of modular refineries as ways to curb activities of artisanal refineries in the region, which is one of the reasons vandalism thrives in the Niger Delta.
Health hazard of oil spill in Bodo
DESPITE the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study, which clearly stated that petroleum hydrocarbons can affect human health when they breathe air, bath, eat fish, drink water or touch soil or sediment that is contaminated with oil, children of Bodo still enjoy swimming and engage in the display of their acrobatic skills in the dirty water.
The Guardian’s reporter efforts to prevent some children swimming in the oily water fell on deaf ears, as the parents insisted that they should be left alone to have fun.
Already, asthma, gastroenteritis, hepatotoxicity, liver failure, remain the common disease among the community people, Dr. D.A Silas of Bodo General Hospital, told The Guardian.
Prior to the oil spill in 2008, the Bodo community had no records of premature deaths, which is now a common phenomenon in the area, the physician said.
According to him, the hospital usually records about six to eight people who suffer from miscarriages every month, while the number of recorded deaths stands at a monthly average of 16 persons.
Dr. Nubari Nabie of Fronnes Hospital, Bodo, said that he has conducted a research, which proved that tilapia and shrimps from Bodo creeks contain Benzene and hydrocarbon that could cause cancer of the lungs in the people who consume them.
Community Liaison Officer between Leigh Day and Bodo community, Bornu Baribefe Victor, said that some people of Bodo do not have boreholes and therefore take their bath in the polluted waters.
He said that there is no month that the community does not record death of women, men and children.
Baribefe’s claim was later confirmed when The Guardian went on a tour in the community and noticed that there were obituary posters in one out of every four houses, to announce “the pass on to glory” of loved ones.
He said that though, there is no scientific proof to ascertain whether the deaths were as a result of the pollution, the UNEP report on health implications of spill on the environment and human life clearly shows that the people are dying due to the polluted environment.
Pointing at the children swimming happily in the water, Baribefe said: “Just look at these little children having fun in the oily water and if we have to go by the UNEP report, it shows that these children are destroying their health.
It is unfortunate that Shell is not even thinking about the health implications of further delay in the clean-up exercise.”
In Bodo community, untreated borehole water has become the only source of water for the wealthy that can afford it while the poor rely solely on water from the polluted creeks.
“Majority of the Niger Delta’s population has no access to potable water. Many communities depend on untreated surface water and wells for drinking, which leads to health problem from waterborne diseases.
Despite the widespread pollution of rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta by oil spills and waste, the locals still depend on available water because there is no alternative”, Dr. Nenibariri Zabbey, told The Guardian.
The Guardian asked why there has not been massive sensitisation to prevent the community from bathing, fishing and even living close to the polluted waters, Deputy Project Director, Dr. Ferdinand Giadom, who is also from Bodo community said: “If you tell the people to stop fishing or eating sea produce, do you have any alternative for them,” he asked.
Giadom narrated an experience he had when he went to deliver a paper at a seminar where he spoke about the health implications associated with crude oil spill. “A pregnant woman came to meet me after the programme to express her concern over the effects of oil spill in Ogoniland.
“I received a call few months later from the same woman who told me that she had a still birth.
The most painful aspect of the story is that the woman said four other women who put to bed at the same time with her also lost their babies. These women are from the oil spill ravaged communities in Ogoniland.
A recent survey by two researchers from Switzerland Anna Bruederle and Roland Hodler of the Department of Economics, University of St. Gallen on onshore oil spills on neonatal and infant mortality in Nigeria, showed that exposure to oil spills prior to conception lead to a strong increase in neonatal mortality.
According to the researchers, exposure to oil spill site increases the neonatal mortality rate by 38 deaths per 1,000 live births.
“We document that the effect on neonatal mortality is highest for oil spills that occurred in close proximity, is relatively persistent over time, and does not depend on the mother’s socio-economic status or the cluster location. We also find some indicative evidence that oil spills impair the health of surviving children.
In particular, we find that oil spills prior to conception increase the incidence of low weight-for-height, notably in the first year of life, and the result is not robust when restricting the analysis to sibling comparisons, the research titled: “The Effect of Oil Spills on Infant Mortality: Evidence from Nigeria.”
Explaining how crude oil spill destroy the environment, the researchers stated: “Crude oil consists of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights.
When crude oil or other petroleum products leak into the environment, the different compounds may evaporate into the air, be absorbed by the soil, or enter ground and surface water.
“Human exposure occurs mainly through dermal contact with soil and water; ingestion of contaminated drinking water, crops, or fish; or inhalation of vaporized product, or PM and partly burned hydrocarbons produced by fires”.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011. The report, which was delivered to the Federal Government of Nigeria, recommended that the government, the oil and gas industry and the communities should begin a comprehensive cleanup of Ogoniland, restore polluted environments and put an end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination in the region.
The U.K lawyer, Leader, stressed the need for the Federal Government to put pressure on Shell to hasten up with the clean-up exercise.
“These spills are now over a decade old.
Nigerian law is clear, that it is the responsibility of the oil pipeline operators to clean up their oil. They have not done so and instead hide behind government clean-up initiatives, which never seem to result in any clean up.
Clean-up would take place if the government forced oil majors to comply with the Nigerian law,” he added.
The majority of the oil and gas pipelines are 30 to 50 years old since the discovery of oil at the Oloibiri in Bayelsa State of Nigeria. Most of the pipes were laid on the surface based upon industry standards in the past. But these pipelines have become old, corroded and less effective.
Dr. Zabbey therefore emphasized the need for the replacement and maintenance of all worn-out pipes transporting oil through Ogoni communities and other parts of the Niger Delta in order to avoid regular and future oil spills.
For Zabbey, the Federal Government should rather focus on empowering the locals whom he said are helping in the refining of illegal crude in the Niger Delta creeks.
“In February 2017, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo announced the Federal Government’s plan to establish modular refineries to economically engage those involved in artisanal refining.
However there are concerns by various stakeholders on the criteria for the issuance of licenses needed to operate the modular refineries. There is the negative potential of the license acquisition process stirring tension in the Niger Delta region.
“Modular refineries seem mid-to-long term project and thus not immediate. What could be immediately useful and help prevent re-pollution given that clean up has started, is the engagement of a critical mass of the refiners in alternative livelihood models that leverage on age-old livelihood means of the people.
One platform that could be used to divert the attention of artisanal refiners to legal and meaningful venture is training in integrated farming.
An Ogoni environmental activist, Celestine Akpobari, stressed the need for Shell to ensure continuous maintenance of its pipelines across the country.
He said: “The pipeline across Ogoniland were laid over five decades ago. This pipeline subject to rust and decay and that has been happening and the oil companies, most especially, Shell is only mindful of profit.
They don’t engage in routine checks and maintenance. If you take a boat around Ogoni creeks, you will see Shell’s well heads flowing with crude oil all the time polluting the waters and environment.”
He also emphasized the need to declare a state of emergency on the entire Ogoniland due to the health implications resulting from the effects of oil spills.
Akpobari expressed the need for Shell to solve the issue of illegal oil bunkering in-house. “Shell knows who the oil thieves are and they also have the solution to it. Even if the communities are involved in the illegal
“Nigeria does not have accurate metering system for its crude oil today, because there are people in government that are benefiting from the illegal bunkering.”
He also accused Shell of stealing its own crude oil. “Shell is also responsible for the spill going on in the creeks. They deliberately spill the crude to cover up what they are stealing from this country every day.
Have you even wondered why there is no accurate crude oil metering system in Nigeria? What will it take to put up a good crude oil metering system so that the country will be able to know the exact quantity of crude oil produced on daily basis”?
President Muhammadu Buhari had in the 2018 budget presentation said: “We are working hard on the Ogoniland clean-up project, and have engaged eight international and local firms proposing different technologies for the mandate.”
“This would enable us select the best and most suitable technology for the remediation work, and have asked each firm to conduct demonstration clean-up exercises in four local government areas of Ogoniland.”
This special report was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism.