Ogoni Cleanup Should Be Holistic, Deploy Local Knowledge — Oluseyi
Dr. Temilola Oluseyi, an analytical and environmental chemist, is a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka. In this interview with IKECHUKWU ONYEWUCHI, she argues that efforts to clean up oil spillages in the past have been shabby, ineffective.
How would you access the plan to cleanup Ogoniland? THERE have been oil spillages in times past; I read somewhere that there have been over 1,000 spillages over the years.
Usually, they have not really been cleaned up. Many of the spillages leave so much effect on the environment. For example, the farmland that has been totally flooded with hydrocarbon can never have the same quality of soil again.
The farmers have to relocate to other places. Or, where, for instance, marine organisms died, one can’t replace those animals in the water bodies. Many of those clean ups in the past have never been effective.
They still have their impacts. We call many of the pollutants that are released into the atmosphere are called persistent organic pollutants; they remain in the environment for a long period of time. Is this why activists and scholars have argued that it would take about 50 years for an effective cleanup to be done? Because of the environmental contamination and human health risk, it is going to take a long while.
The several spillages that have occurred over time are more than a single spillage, such as the Exxon Valdex oil spillage that was just a one time occurrence and attracted far more outrage in the developed countries than other more devastating ones here. It has ripple effects, not just on the environment, but also on the social economic angle.
Many of the people in the host communities are impoverished, because they are fishermen, and if there are no fishes, they are out of job. That is why some of them go into militancy; the farmers are out of job because the soils can no longer support farming.
What would you say about the concern that there might be genetic defects among members of host communities in the nearest future; should those in these communities be worried? Some pollutants, particularly, the persistent organic pollutant types, are mutagenic, others carcinogenic, and yet others, teratogenic; the effects differ.
Some of them do not affect the adult human, but if the unborn fetuses have too much exposure to these chemicals, they could have subcunigenital birth defects.
It may not really present itself in this generation; it may be in some years to come. There is also inhalation. There is a lot of gas flaring in the Niger Delta. The oil companies release green house gases, which cause climate change and depletion of the ozone layer. Once there is climate change, it would affect the weather pattern and there would be diseases around. Some of the effects could be itchy eyes and respiratory diseases.
The health effects are very grave, particularly from gas flaring. What are the various cost elements in the process of the cleanup? It is in two ways.
One is using technology for the actual cleanup of the environment. And in doing that, we don’t want to introduce more pollutants. Hence, it must be environmentally friendly. Modern technology that would be adopted would not be cheap as well as the personnel that would take over the cleanup. We may have to bring in expatriates from developed countries, where there have been cleanups.
We have not really done this in Nigeria on a large scale so we have to get technology and personnel from where it is routinely done. That aside, there is going to be a lot of compensation.
Politically, we have heard that when the oil companies pay compensations, it doesn’t get to everyone, it sits with only a few. It doesn’t get to the man on the street or at the grassroots.
They have to be holistic with compensation, probably relocate farm settlements and give jobs to those that have been out of jobs. There should equally be social amenities in such areas, so that they would be adequately compensated for all their lands and population affected by oil exploration.
Those that have to be trained to get proper jobs, like the fishermen, should get scholarships to go to school and get them entrenched into proper society.
Wouldn’t it be appropriate to get Nigerians involved in the process, if only to build local capacity? Yes, I think so. In Nigeria, particularly in the universities, we have been doing researches on remediation of lands and water that have been contaminated. This is time for every research that had been done in times past on the laboratory scale to be brought to the field.
It would be a life experience and those coming from abroad should team up with researchers on ground. This is a local thing; there should be a local content in it.
Researchers that have done extensive work on remediation of contaminated land and water can be brought into the team. The technology to be used may be foreign to us, but the people on ground that are trained and experienced in this remedial work like chemists, environmental chemist, microbiologist, geologists and civil engineers should be engaged.
We have them in several universities across the country. All they have to do is to get into people’s profile and find out those that have done researches in time past related to this. It may be on the laboratory scale, but it is the same knowledge and technology that would be transferred to the field when the work is going to be carried out. It would be an opportunity to test local knowledge.
Nobody is reinventing the wheel. The only thing is that it is not what we have been doing in Nigeria, so on a large scale, it is something new. I have worked on remediation of soils contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.
All we should to do then is to collect soil samples, bring them to the laboratory and try different methods of removal. We have never really gone beyond the laboratory scale, but this is the opportunity for the knowledge of all the past work carried out in the laboratory to bear.
We have got methods that are best in treating the waste in the environment. Is this because of the composition of the Nigerian soil? Yes. We are talking about tropical soil, which is different from what obtains in temperate countries, where some of the expatriates are coming from.
The soil geochemistry is particular to what we have here. It may not be a total transfer of what has been done in a temperate country. But based on the research that had been done on collecting samples from different areas here, we have been able to see some methods that are best in remediating these contaminants in the soil.
What would you suggest for the committee set up to initiate the cleanup process? I would suggest that people with experience in the academia should be drafted into the committee.
I would cite an example. In the United Kingdom, when they were about to build the 5th terminal of the Heathrow Airport, engineering students in different universities were carried along because building an airport is not done all the time.
In their lifetime, that might be the only airport they might experience being built. The government got students in different universities that would learn from the project.
In the same way, this is a big project too, I think the committee should check through research profile in the academia and sort out people that have done similar work, even if in laboratory scale, to be involved.
We have bioremediation, chemical remediation, and physical remediation and there are many people who are researching into these in universities. Oil spillages are accidents that might occur anytime. Once this is cleaned up, there is no guarantee that there won’t be another one tomorrow. We can’t always depend on foreigners.