Paul Osuyi, Asaba
FROM Tsekelewu, along the Benin River in Warri North Local Government Area to Ugborodo, Okerenkoko (Escravos River) in Warri South West Local Government Area, and other oil-bearing communities in Delta State, the story is the same, environmental degradation.
In the past, locals accused illegal bunkerers as well as oil exploration and exploitation activities by multi-national firms for their woes. But the blame narratives are gradually shifting to the actions of security agents who are destroying confiscated illegal oil vessels.
In fact, residents in these despoiled areas are livid that government kept mute while security agents disregarded their environment over the years. They claimed that the action of security agents affected them very negatively with many anglers and farmers thrown out of business and large number suffering health complications.
As a result, the state government has been overwhelmed with complaints from the riverine oil bearing communities on the contributions of security agents to the despoliation of environment in their areas. These complaints led to the activation of the Delta State Advocacy Committee Against Vandalism and Oil and Gas Facilities headed by the deputy governor, Kingsley Otuaro.
He recently undertook a helicopter-driven aerial view of some sites impacted by spills from exploded vessels. At every stopover, he was greeted by angry placard carrying locals protesting environmental degradation allegedly as a result of activities of security agents during destruction of seized oil vessels.
At Okerekoko, Warri South West for instance, inscriptions on placards read: “Military, Stop the Burning (of illegal crude oil badges)”, “Our Environment is No Longer Safe for Healthy Living”, “Stop Pollution of Our Environment”, “Our Environment Is Our Pride”, “Federal Government Save Our Environment”, “We Need Freedom”, “Government, Intervene In Our Environment”.
Chairman of Okerekoko Federated community, Mr Kingsley Akpos Oturubo, said the idea of burning crude oil boats and spilling undiluted or refined products into the waters is not a better idea: “Spills from crude oil vessels exploded by security agents into waters has polluted same such that fishing activity was no longer productive. The situation has caused untold hardship that can make a people go into extinction.”
A 65-year-old resident of the area, Mrs Ebiasuode Aramisi, also lamented the effect of spills from explosions of illegal oil vessels: “The burning of the illegal oil vessels has greatly affected us by way of polluting the rivers beyond normal. We can no longer fish. We are hungry as our sources of livelihood are destroyed/polluted. Federal Government, save us.”
Chairman, Macaraba and Olero Oil Field communities in Warri North Local Government, Mr Simon Iluwa, told the deputy governor: “Some of the health challenges and complications suffered due to petroleum hydrocarbons in our waters include but not limited to renal failure, skin rashes and irritations, respiratory system disorders, miscarriages in women, infertility and childhood/birth defects.” He noted that their waters and farming sources of livelihood had been stamped out by pollution to which they demanded a stop:
“Other immediate demands include the supply of drinkable water, provision of secondary and tertiary health facilities to address health challenges plus trainings on fish pond farming and on use of trawlers.
“We vehemently condemn illegal bunkering and refining activities in our environment. It is obvious that government is making partial efforts at stopping illegal bunkering activities in our area. Nevertheless, the approach of burning recovered stolen petroleum products by the military has caused more harm than good. Our environment has been degraded, polluted and devastated due to illegal bunkering and related activities.”
Sympathising with the affected communities, Otuaro called for national discourse to fathom possible solutions to the nagging issue, describing the environmental despoliation as worrisome, disgusting and unacceptable. He agreed that the sources of livelihood of the people have been negatively affected by illegal bunkering activities:
“On behalf of Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, we would do something about your catalogue of requests. We may not be able to do all but we will interface with your leaders and know what to prioritise going into the next budgetary preparations.” He said the explosion by the security agents was “an ill wind that is blowing nobody any good.
“We have heard complaints that security agents who are of course on their duty of ensuring that these criminal activities are stamped out, are helplessly destroying these arrested or seized badges, boats or vessels laden with illegal products such that they are spilled into the environment and that in itself occasions much more impact on the environment.
“It is not in keeping with global best practice. And I think on that note, we need a national discourse because what we saw is worrisome and disgusting. We need to think through this problem that has endangered and pauperised the people.”
Regardless, some locals alleged that even the public destruction of seized illegal oil vessels by security agents is a facade to deceive the people, accusing the security operatives of also engaging in the act of illegal bunkering.
Citing an article in the Security and News Makers magazine of 2009, a community leader, Lucky Buowe, said security agents could not extricate themselves from the act of illegal bunkering and pollution of the environment. He blamed the government for its half hearted response to the challenges of oil bearing communities in the creeks, declaring that failed attempts to dialogue have made matters worse:
“In many cases, there are definite but ambiguous links between the military and militants each out for personal gain as the political economy of war perpetuates the illicit nature of these activities. In addition, the military campaigns to date have only served to provoke insurgency, leading to fighting that left civilians killed and displaced. The lack of clear distinction between the security forces of the oil companies and the Nigerian military feed communities’ perception that the two are interchangeable.”
A community leader in Okerenkoko, Mr Simon Bebenimibo, said: “You (the military) came to fight illegal bunkering partly because of the spill and pollution of the environment, you are also burning and destroying these same boats and causing spills on the same area, that is another pollution.”
What the law says about pollution
A lawyer, Osteen Igbapike, said the alleged disposal of oil by anybody into the waters constitutes a punishable crime. He asserted that Section 3 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1968, prohibits discharge into national waters of Nigeria anything that is deleterious to the environment. He added that Section 12 of the same law empowers the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) to prosecute anyone caught in the act:
“This is a responsibility in the International Convention on Prevention of Pollution of The Sea By Oil 1954 to which Nigeria is a signatory.” He pointed out that Section 1 of the Harmful Waste Special Criminal Provision Act 1988 holds that anybody depositing or dumping or attempting to deposit, dump harmful waste into our inland waterways is guilty of a crime which attracts life imprisonment by Section 6.
“The definition of harmful waste is given as any injurious, poisonous and noxious substance that poses danger to physical health amongst others. Scientists have long established crude oil in waters to be noxious or injurious to health.”