Although regulators attribute the root cause of last November’s oil spill to the Petroleum Mining License (OML 29) operated by Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production at Santa Barbara Wellhead 1 in the Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State to sabotage and external human interference, the Bayelsa State Government and host community dismissed the finding, linking the cause of the spill to equipment/maintenance failure.
Between November and December, a very devastating spill occurred in the wellhead, with concomitant health and economic effects on the people and residents of not only Nembe but also surrounding communities.
The situation had raised concerns among stakeholders, the state and the federal government, as it took more than a month for operators to contain the spill and restore normal life in the community. Although the effort to contain the spill bore fruit at the end of December, its negative effects on the health of the population cannot be undone.
Oil spills and gas flaring have been the major problem in virtually every community in the Niger Delta region, as stakeholders claim that multinational oil companies and the government are only interested in the resources and not to the well-being of individuals and host communities.
Recently, black soot has seeped into the air across regional states, which experts have attributed to relentless oil spills and illegal refining. Almost every community in the Niger Delta region has had their own experience of the devastating effects of the oil spill.
The Bayelsa State Government, the operator of OML 29, Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production and the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), together with Nigeria Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC), conducted a joint investigative visit to the spill site and made different findings.
While Aiteo, NOSDRA and NUPRC claimed that the oil spill was caused by external human interference with the oil wellhead, which resulted in sabotage, Bayelsa State government officials, local government council of Nembe and the affected host community claimed that the incident was due to equipment failure.
Bayelsa State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Biriyai Dambo, Senior Advocate for Nigeria (SAN), who is also Chairman of the Oil Spill Technical Committee, noted in a statement to Yenagoa that during the Joint investigation, representatives from the Bayelsa State Ministry of Environment, Nembe Local Government Council and the host community, found and declared the cause of the spill to be equipment/flue failure. ‘interview.
He also revealed that the state government will take all appropriate measures to pursue environmental justice for itself and the affected communities to end the permanent pollution of the environment.
He said: “While the combined team of NOSDRA, NUPRC and Aiteo asserted that the spill was caused by external human interference with the oil wellhead, officials from the Bayelsa State Government/Ministry Environment, Nembe Local Government Council and the affected host community observed that the wellhead accessories/instruments to be inspected had been removed and replaced, which amounted to tampering and concealing the equipment and proofs.
“There had been similar oil spill incidents, albeit on a smaller scale, from the same Santa Barbara 1 wellhead in OML 29 in 2018 and 2019, which Aiteo had previously admitted. ‘to date, there have been no remedial actions or safeguards against future recurrence put in place or enforced by Aiteo and NOSDRA respectively on said spills as required by the affected communities, until this eruption to occur in November 2021. We were shocked that on the day of this latest joint investigation, when asked about these previous incidents at the exact same wellhead, Aiteo denied and NOSDRA remained silent.
“The Bayelsa State Government declares the cause of the spill to be equipment failure and will take all appropriate action to pursue environmental justice for itself and affected communities to end the ongoing pollution of our environment through reckless and irresponsible oil practices that are condoned by a weak or compromised regulatory system,” he said.
Already, some indigenous people in the affected community have raised concerns about the environmental danger caused by the oil spill, as well as the negative impact on the health of the population.
According to Preye Romiel, a native of the community, “The thing affects us because the whole river is polluted. Oil is everywhere. The spill lasted over a month, so our water is full of oil.
“All the fishing establishments around this territory are affected. The oil content was so much that all the water is totally polluted. No way to use water at all. We also cannot fish because all the fish have fled from this area.
Another native, 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 hasn’t produced for years. It was his pressure that caused the spill. This rig was purchased from Shell in 2015 and they were unable to service this equipment. They have been there for decades.
“The pressure from that head made that thing pop because it wasn’t producing; and it stagnates. If they used it, that pressure wouldn’t be there.
“The oil has spread to other communities because the water has low and high tides.”
Ms. Joy Wingemi, in her reaction, revealed, “Women can no longer go back to the river to wash themselves or our clothes. The river is now full of oil. We can no longer fish and this causes severe hunger.
“Our children are now hungry because we used to use the fish to cook for them, but now we can’t fish. We can’t even get near the river anymore.
A doctor from the Federal Medical Center of Yenagoa and former president of the Association of Resident Doctors, FMC section, Dr. Ebimobowei Onini, said that the oil spills had serious consequences on the health of people living in the environment.
He said: “As a respiratory doctor, these things are not far-fetched. First and foremost, health impact can be divided into immediate effect, medium-term effect, and long-term effect. The immediate effect will be on the environment, for example, environmental degradation, which affects the livelihoods of people living around that environment.
“Farming will be stopped, fishing and those things will be hampered to a very high level, so people won’t be able to fish and do certain things that will give them hope. And of course, once people are disabled, poverty comes, and with poverty comes disease.
“You know that crude oil contains a lot of substances. Many petroleum products are embedded in crude oil and each of them has its effect on different parts of the body, but in general, we can think of the spill that is pouring out as a solvent that people inhale.
“When someone inhales this kind of thing, they are likely to have upper respiratory tract hypersensitivity. Some people may start out sneezing, coughing; and in that way, due to the nature of these chemicals, they will interfere with some form of process in the body that will damage the immune system.
“So it’s going to put those people at risk for something like either upper respiratory tract infection. It’s mostly for adults. It can put children at risk for a lower respiratory tract infection. So all kinds infections can easily enter the respiratory system and start causing disease, so you see people coughing, sneezing, and different types of respiratory problems.
“In the long term, these are solvents. So, when inhaled into the lungs, some of them get to the blood and stay there for years, causing different kinds of problems. They can even alter the functioning of the body; it is the metabolism of the body. By this they can change the way the cells work and then the cells start dividing autonomously and become immortal. And they can cause cancer. Most of the time, when we hear of people having blood and cancer on different parts of the body, these petroleum products may be responsible.
“When you see people after years of oil spill having different problems – chest, cancer, heart, kidney – it’s because of some of these chemicals because they serve as poison for the body and have many repercussions on the health of anyone exposed to these things.
“The spill can cause any type of illness because people may not notice some of these things immediately. But over time, it begins to affect different parts of the body, even the reproductive system. It can affect any part of the body. It is very possible for people to suffer from infertility as a result of exposure to some of these chemicals.
“It really is 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 mobilized to the immediate communities affected by the spill.
“Aiteo officials are closely monitoring all activities related to the affected communities, such as food, lighting, hygiene, drinking water and medical needs with the help of local associations.
“Aiteo and HSE safety and security teams monitor air quality every six hours to check the habitability of areas adjacent to Ground Zero. Aiteo is mobilizing additional relief materials for affected communities.