Far from Gulf disaster’s glare, Nigeria’s chronic oil spills are its 50-year nightmare

By Jon Gambrell, AP
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Gulf spill a familiar story in oil-soaked Nigeria

IWUO-OKPOM, Nigeria — The brown spots run like a trail of blood down the deserted coastline near this fishing village. Just underneath a handful of sand lies spilled oil.

Oil powers this West African nation’s economy but is killing its southern shores. Villagers here say the spillage regularly washes ashore, ruining their fishing nets and meager livelihoods. Children whose parents can’t afford school fees pass the time flipping bottle caps into tin cans.

While the world is transfixed by the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills have become a part of everyday life during the 50 years that foreign firms have been pumping out Nigeria’s easily refined fuel. Environmentalists estimate as much as 550 million gallons of oil have poured into the Niger River Delta during that time — at a rate roughly comparable to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year.

Black crude stains the coasts of the Niger Delta, a region of swamps, mangroves and creeks almost the size of South Carolina or Portugal. But who is responsible, and who should clean up? The answers are as murky as the fouled waters.

“They pay when they spill in their own country. All those oil companies come from white-man countries,” said Samuel Ayadi, a pastor and fishermen’s representative. “In our country now, they leave the fishermen in pain.”

Colonized by the British in the late 1800s for its palm oil, Nigeria became an oil power after Royal Dutch Shell PLC struck its first working well in 1956 in the Niger Delta. Other foreign firms moved in, among them Chevron Corp., Italy’s Eni SpA, Exxon Mobil Corp. and French major Total SA, all working across the delta in partnership with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.

Much of the oil heads to the U.S.

OPEC figures put daily production at about 2 million barrels. But the profits come at a steep ecological price.

According to government figures, Nigeria suffered more than 6,800 oil spills from 1976 through 2001, losing some 130 million gallons — 3 million barrels.

Under the worst-case scenario, the Gulf Coast spill is sending 2.5 million gallons a day into the ocean where the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20.

Environmentalists say the Nigerian government figures don’t include what is lost in attacks by militants demanding a bigger share of the profits for the delta region, and in communities too remote or dangerous to enter.

In Iwuo-Okpom, an Atlantic Ocean village of 7,000, a tiny flame on the horizon marks an offshore Exxon Mobil oil platform. On this coast, in January 1998, a pipeline of the company then known only as Mobil broke and spilled about 1.6 million gallons into the ocean, one of Nigeria’s worst spills. The slick spread as far as Lagos, a city of 14 million people 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest.

Tade Amuwa, a 35-year-old woman who smokes fish in Iwuo-Okpom, says those caught near the village cook poorly.

“All these things, they all go black,” she said, sweeping her hand across oil-soaked driftwood and puny, discolored fish.

In a statement, Exxon Mobil’s Nigerian subsidiary said it used airplanes and boats to spray dispersants on recent slicks, though “regrettably some oil did reach shoreline areas.” The subsidiary said it also offered contracts for locals to help with the cleanup. Village leaders denied receiving any such offers.

More than 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles) of pipelines and flow stations snake through the delta, some of them decades old, corroded and prone to failure under the pressure.

Oil companies can’t be blamed for all the spills. Militant groups have targeted pipelines, kidnapped oil workers and fought government troops here since 2006. Fearing attacks and kidnappings, firms are hesitant to send staff to spill sites, and often confine employees to offshore platforms and military-protected compounds.

In Ogoniland, a swampy, oil-rich portion of the delta, villagers rebelled and drove out the oil companies in the 1990s. Still, Shell pipelines run throughout the area.

As the tide ebbs at Bodo City, a town in Ogoniland, exposed mangrove roots drip black from spilled crude. There are no birds in the sky or fish in the creeks.

“They died,” said Mike K. Vipene, a youth leader in Bodo City. “They won’t be coming back.”

Villagers blamed a failing Shell pipeline. Caroline Wittgen, a Shell spokeswoman, said the company wouldn’t comment on individual spills. A recent Shell environmental report said that almost all the oil spilled from company lines last year — more than 4 million gallons — resulted from sabotage.

Criminal gangs often tap into pipelines in remote, unprotected areas. Government estimates suggest they steal as much as 15 percent of the delta’s oil, loading some onto ships for sale on the black market. Others run refineries in the bush, producing bootleg gasoline to sell at rickety roadside tables throughout the delta.

The incentive for the thefts is simple, says Young Kigbara, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People: “Poverty; everybody wants to survive.”

Though thefts continue, violence has calmed in recent months with the offer of a government amnesty. Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s new president, is from the delta and has promised to make peace a priority.

But the amnesty deal now appears to be faltering and demands for compensation persist. Okon Sunday, the village chief in Iwuo-Okpom, wants Exxon Mobil to pay his community billions of dollars.

If compensation isn’t treated seriously, militancy is inevitable, he said. “It is conflict to crisis, crisis to full-fledged war.”

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