Oil spill has become a major environmental concern in the Niger Delta region, as it adversely affects the people and their entire ecosystem.
Oil spills in populated neighbourhoods often spread out over wide areas, destroying crops and aquacultures via the contamination of groundwater and soils.
Experts say that the intake of dissolved oxygen by the bacteria feeding on the spilled hydrocarbons also contributes to the death of fish, while affecting food supply due to the instantaneous destruction of crops.
Observers note that the rising menace of oil spills in the Niger Delta area has somewhat made the environment to become increasingly uninhabitable.
The comment appears plausible, as some residents of affected areas have often complained about health issues such as breathing problems and skin lesions; while others now lack access to food and clean water.
In short, the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) estimated that 1.89 million barrels of crude oil spilled in the Niger Delta area between 1976 and 1996, out of a total of 2.4 million barrels, spilled in 4,835 incidents.
On the other hand, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report stated that a total of 6,817 oil spills occurred in Nigeria between 1976 and 2001, accounting for the loss of three million barrels of crude oil, of which more than 70 per cent was not recovered.
The report added that 69 per cent of these spills occurred off-shore, a quarter took place in swamps, while six per cent of the spills occurred on land.
The report noted that some of the spills were caused by sabotage and thieves, while most of them were due to the poor maintenance of oil production facilities.
In recent times, an oil spill occurred at the Bonga oil field and it was estimated that over 40,000 barrels of crude spilled into the sea.
The spill, which occurred on Dec. 20, 2011, resulted in an oil slick, 185 km long off the country’s coast, and it was adjudged to be the worst spill in the area for a decade.
Such incidents, perhaps, compelled Gov. Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa to advocate the enactment stringent laws to protect the environment in the Niger Delta area against the menace of oil pollution and other oil exploration activities.
He underscored the need for oil companies operating in the Niger Delta to protect the environment, while refraining from activities that were capable of degrading the environment.
Similarly, Mr Patrick Ukura, a consultant on environmental issues, urged the Federal Government to adopt technical measures aimed at addressing oil spills in Niger Delta.
He argued that the government had always adopted political and financial approaches in handling oil spills, instead of involving environmental specialists in efforts to bring lasting solutions to the problem
However, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, President of Women Arise for Change Initiative, called on Shell Petroleum and Development Company to immediately clean up the oil spills that occurred at Ikarama community in Bayelsa State in line with the highest acceptable international standards.
She stressed that that the community had suffered a lot from repeated oil spills and toxic fumes.
Okei-Odumakin said that the community recorded a spill from a Shell facility some months ago, adding that the spill left the area polluted.
“Relevant government agencies, including National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), should also probe the immediate and remote causes of the burning of crude oil in the community,’’ she added.
The problem appears frightening, as the report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on its two-year study on the Niger Delta said that contamination from oil spills in the area had been widespread and severe.
“This report proves that Shell has had a terrible impact on Nigeria but has got away with denying it for decades, falsely claiming they work in line with best international standards, as established by Mr Audrey Gaughran, Director, International Global Issues of UNEP.
Gaughran, who conducted the research on the human rights impacts of pollution in the Niger Delta, provided unassailable evidence on the devastating impact of oil pollution on the people’s lives in the area.
The study examined the damage to agriculture and fisheries, which culminated in the destruction of the people’s livelihoods and food sources.
One of the most serious facts to come to light was the scale of contamination of drinking water, which had exposed the affected communities to serious health risks.
The report revealed a systemic failure of Shell to address oil spills for several years and described how the sites, which Shell purportedly cleaned up, were found by UNEP experts to be still polluted.
“Shell must put its hands up and face the fact that it has to deal with the damage it has caused.
“Trying to hide behind the actions of others, when Shell is the most powerful actor on the scene, is certainly not desirable.
“There is no solution to oil pollution in Niger Delta as long as Shell continues to focus on protecting its corporate image, at the expense of the truth and at the expense of justice,’’ the report said.
The report’s findings also indicted the Federal Government for failing to regulate and control the activities of oil companies like Shell.
“UNEP found that Nigeria’s regulators are weak and Nigeria’s oil spill investigation agency is often totally reliant on the oil companies to do its work.
“The oil and gas sector represents 97 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange revenues and it contributes 79.5 per cent of government revenues. Oil has generated an estimated 600 U.S. dollars billion since the 1960s.
“Under Nigerian regulations, oil companies must clean up all oil spills but these regulations are not enforced,’’ the report stated.
Nevertheless, NOSDRA says that it will launch an oil spill monitoring programme nationwide to alert its officials during oil spill emergencies.
Mr Peter Idabor, the agency’s Director-General, said that the mechanism would enhance quick response to emergencies.
He said that the agency was collaborating with oil-producing communities and major oil companies to design programmes on how to monitor oil spillage and quickly report to appropriate authorities.
Idabor said that NOSDRA had imposed a fine of 5 billion dollars (about N800 billion) on Shell Petroleum and Development Company for the 2011 Bonga oil spill in the Niger Delta.
He pointed out that the fine would serve as a deterrent to other oil production firms which treated environmental concerns in oil production with levity.
Idabor said that NOSDRA also criticised Shell for not providing immediate relief to the affected communities, insisting that the company ought to have provided succour for those whose fishing activities were affected by the spill.
He, nonetheless, stressed that the NOSDRA Act, which was currently undergoing a review by the National Assembly, would empower the agency to enforce laws aimed at reducing oil spill emergencies to the barest minimum.
Sharing similar sentiments, Mr Tolu Makinde, the Deputy Director (Press), Ecological Fund Office, urged oil producing companies to always endeavour to protect the environment from oil spillage.
He stressed that incessant oil spills constituted a threat to the entire ecosystem, particularly in the oil producing region.
Makinde said that oil spills had a myriad of negative socio-economic and environmental effects, adding that cleaning up the polluted environment was a statutory issue which involved experts.
“It is NOSDRA that has the professional capacity to supervise the cleanup of oil spills whenever they occur; so as to ensure that the oil and gas producing environment is safe and clean for habitation.
“The agency has the mandate to regulate oil production and its effects on the environment; it should also ensure that polluters undertake their responsibility too.
“Nevertheless, I advise the oil-producing communities to also police their environment by calling their youths, who engage in oil pipeline vandalism, to order because the impact of oil spill is more pronounced in those communities,’’ Makinde added.
All the same, the consensus of opinion among experts is that concerted efforts should be made to put an end to the menace of oil spills in the country.