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Nigeria: Past Time for Oil Cleanup, 1

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Aug 12, 2011 (110812)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The fact that the environment of the Niger Delta, and that portion of it known as Ogoniland, has been devastated by oil pollution for decades should not be news. It has been repeatedly exposed by Nigerian and international activists in print, court testimony, photographs, and films, and punctuated by the 1995 martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni activists. But this month, for the first time, a comprehensive scientific survey of oil pollution in Ogoniland has concluded that the pollution is even more pervasive than many previously assumed. Simultaneously, in response to a class-action suit in London, Shell Oil has accepted responsibility for two massive oil spills in Ogoniland in 1998.

The report, carried out by a team of experts under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), investigated more than 200 locations, and carried out detailed examination of 69 oil spill sites, collecting more than 4,000 soil and groundwater samples. The report, financed by Shell itself on the basis of the principle "polluter pays," was controversial and carefully focused on evaluating the damage, without venturing into precise allocation of blame. But the implication of massive failure by Shell, as well as by the Nigerian state oil company, by Nigerian state regulators, and by the home countries of Shell (United Kingdom and the Netherlands) is inescapable.

The report recommends an immediate initial investment of $1 billion, by Shell and the Nigerian government, for the first five years of a comprehensive cleanup which it estimated could take as long as 30 years, but did not estimate the total cost. Environmental Rights Action, a Nigerian group, estimated that at least $100 billion was needed. Activists also noted that the report only included Ogoniland, and that similar conditions prevailed in other oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta.

The new report, as well as the precedent of Shell's acceptance of responsibility for the 1998 spills, may provide new momentum for action. And, as the report indicated, the cleanup could provide much needed jobs for the region. Even so, major questions remain about the political will and commitment of Shell and the Nigerian government to act on the recommendations of the report.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the press release on the report from UNEP, and an informative commentary on its significance by Deirdre LaPin, published in

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today but not sent out by email, available on the web at, contains an article on the Bodo spills by John Vidal, environment correspondent of the Guardian, a background fact sheet on the UNEP report and oil pollution in Ogoniland from Friends of the Earth Netherlands, and excerpts from the executive summary of the UNEP report.

Additional related articles of interest include:

John Vidal, "UN report on the Ogoniland oil spills could be catalyst for change," August 10, 2011 / direct URL:

"UNEP Report: ERA seeks $100 billion for Niger Delta," August 4, 2011

"Ogoni, ERA, Mitee, reject report," August 6, 2011 / direct URL:

Nnimo Bassey, "The Agony of Ogoni," August 11, 2011 / direct URL:

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Nigeria, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

UNEP Ogoniland Oil Assessment Reveals Extent of Environmental Contamination and Threats to Human Health

Abuja, 4 August 2011 - The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world's most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health.

A major new independent scientific assessment, carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), shows that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have supposed.

The assessment has been unprecedented. Over a 14-month period, the UNEP team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.

Detailed soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites, which ranged in size from 1,300 square metres (Barabeedom-K.dere, Gokana local government area (LGA) to 79 hectares (Ajeokpori-Akpajo, Eleme LGA).

Altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

Key Findings

Some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground and action to protect human health and reduce the risks to affected communities should occur without delay says UNEP's Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland.

In at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened, according to the assessment that was released today.

In one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, in western Ogoniland, families are drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen-at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. The site is close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline.

UNEP scientists found an 8 cm layer of refined oil floating on the groundwater which serves the wells. This was reportedly linked to an oil spill which occurred more than six years ago.

While the report provides clear operational recommendations for addressing the widespread oil pollution across Ogoniland, UNEP recommends that the contamination in Nisisioken Ogale warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts.

While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalyzing a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take 25 to 30 years.

This work will require the deployment of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, improved environmental monitoring and regulation and collaborative action between the government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said the report provided the scientific basis on which a long overdue and concerted environmental restoration of Ogoniland, a kingdom in Nigeria's Niger Delta region, can begin.

"The oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines," he said.

"It is UNEP's hope that the findings can break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland. In addition it offers a blueprint for how the oil industry-and public regulatory authorities- might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the Continent," said Mr Steiner.

"The clean-up of Ogoniland will not only address a tragic legacy but also represents a major ecological restoration enterprise with potentially multiple positive effects ranging from bringing the various stakeholders together in a single concerted cause to achieving lasting improvements for the Ogoni people," said the UNEP Executive Director.

UNEP today presented its report to the President of Nigeria, The Hon Goodluck Jonathan, in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

Among its other findings are:-

  • Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: the Shell Petroleum Development Company's own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues.
  • The impact of oil on mangrove vegetation has been disastrous. Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves-nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters- denuded of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick.
  • The five highest concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons detected in groundwater exceed 1 million micrograms per litre (µg/l) - compared to the Nigerian standard for groundwater of 600 µg/l.
  • When an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult. At some sites, a crust of ash and tar has been in place for several decades.
  • The surface water throughout the creeks in and surrounding Ogoniland contain hydrocarbons. Floating layers of oil vary from thick black oil to thin sheens.
  • Despite community concerns, the results show that fish consumption in Ogoniland, either of those caught locally or purchased from markets, was not posing a health risk.

    The report says that fish tend to leave polluted areas in search of cleaner water. However, the fisheries sector is suffering due to the destruction of fish habitat and highly persistent contamination of many creeks. Where entrepreneurs have established fish farms for example their businesses have been ruined by an "ever-present" layer of floating oil.

  • The Ogoni community is exposed to hydrocarbons every day through multiple routes. While the impact of individual contaminated land sites tends to be localized, air pollution related to oil industry operations is all pervasive and affecting the quality of life of close to one million people.
  • Artisanal refining (a practice whereby crude oil illegally obtained from oil industry operations is refined in primitive stills), is endangering lives and ultimately causing pockets of environmental devastation in Ogoniland and neighbouring areas.

    Remote sensing revealed that in Bodo West, in Bonny LGA, an increase in artisanal refining between 2007 and 2011 has been accompanied by a 10% loss of healthy mangrove cover - or over 307,380 square metres.

  • Remediation by enhanced natural attenuation (RENA) - a way of boosting the ability of naturally-occuring microbes to breakdown oil and so far the only remediation method observed by UNEP in Ogoniland - has not proven to be effective.

    Currently, SPDC applies this technique on the land surface layer only, based on the assumption that given the kind of oil concerned, factors such as temperature and an underlying layer of clay, hydrocarbons will not move deeper. However, in 49 cases UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 m.

Next Steps Recommendations

Through a combination of approaches, individual contaminated land areas in Ogoniland can be cleaned up within five years, while the restoration of heavilyimpacted mangrove stands and swamplands will take up to 30 years.

However, according to the report, all sources of ongoing contamination must be brought to an end before the clean-up of the creeks, sediments and mangroves can begin.

The report recommends establishing three new institutions in Nigeria to support a comprehensive environmental restoration exercise.

A proposed Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority would oversee implementation of the study's recommendations and should be set up during a Transition Phase which UNEP suggests should begin as soon as possible.

The Authority's activities should be funded by an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland, to be set up with an initial capital injection of US$1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government, to cover the first five years of the clean-up project.

A recommended Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre, to be built in Ogoniland and supported by potentially hundreds of mini treatment centres, would treat contaminated soil and provide hundreds of job opportunities.

The report also recommends creating a Centre of Excellence in Environmental Restoration in Ogoniland to promote learning and benefit other communities impacted by oil contamination in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the world.

Reforms of environmental government regulation, monitoring and enforcement, and improved practices by the oil industry are also recommended in the report.

Notes to Editors

The Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland report is available online at:

Site-specific fact sheets containing detailed information about 67 of the contaminated sites studied in detail are also available at this website.

This report details how the UNEP team carried out their work, where samples were taken and the findings that they have made.

The UNEP assessment, alongside options for remediation, was conducted at the request of the Government of Nigeria. If requested, UNEP is willing to remain a committed partner of the Nigerian authorities and of the Ogoni people as they address the environmental challenges ahead.

For More Information Please Contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson / Head of Media +254 733 632 755 or

Julie Marks UNEP Communications Advisor +41 794 419 937 or +234 816 0944 693

Next Step - Clean Up the Niger Delta

Deirdre LaPin

10 August 2011

Dr. Deirdre LaPin is a senior fellow at the African Studies Center of the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant on development and corporate responsibility. She was previously a research associate and lecturer at the University of Ife, Nigeria, and served with Shell from 1997 to 2003 in helping establish sustainable community development programs.

The recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme's study on oil pollution in Ogoniland point to the need for a genuine shift in the priorities and practices of the oil industry and government regulatory agencies in the Niger Delta, writes AllAfrica guest columnist Deirdre LaPin.

The study makes clear that nothing less than ending pollution and full remediation of Ogoniland and the whole Niger Delta region should be accepted as an end point, she says.

The long-awaited report from the United National Environmental Program (UNEP) on oil damage in the Ogoni area was presented to President Goodluck Jonathan on August 4 in Abuja. This important study, the first of its kind in the Niger Delta, was conceived well before 2006 by the Federal Government as part of the Ogoni reconciliation and peace process led by Father Matthew Kukah (recently named Bishop of Sokoto). Intended as a major assessment of the impacts of oil production in the Ogoni region, UNEP in an early statement described the aim as to "clarify and demystify concerns expressed by local communities".

Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) suspended active production in Ogoniland in late 1993 as a response to growing resistance to industry presence led by the martyred freedom fighter and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. However, the company remained responsible during its withdrawal for monitoring and maintaining its installations, and especially the critical Trans-Niger pipeline serving Bonny Terminal. It also left behind a number of spill sites.

Over the years the Company had mixed success in negotiating with local communities access to spills sites or achieving their complete remediation. The impoverished local population also pursued informal oil production that centered on bunkering (oil pipeline tapping) and bush refining - increasing opportunities for further spills and pollution. In keeping with the "polluter pays" principle, the operator SPDC joint venture funded the U.S. $9.5 million UNEP study.

Last week the press had a field day with the freshly unveiled report.

Journalists whisked together highlights and added spice from the region's contested history. Some articles cooked in the press kitchen missed key ingredients or simply got them mixed up. The best among them focused on the findings from the study's careful scientific analysis, which led UNEP to the conclusion that "pollution has perhaps gone further and penetrated deeper than many may have previously supposed."

This forceful opinion stated in the foreword by UNEP's executive director Achim Steiner represents a long step beyond the study's original technical terms of reference or the limited policy aims supporting reconciliation and "demystification."

Now in 2011 UNEP's thoughtful recommendations, while not assigning blame, point clearly to the need for a genuine shift in the priorities and practices of the oil industry and governmental regulatory agencies operating throughout the Niger Delta. The muscular sub-text rippling throughout the report makes clear that nothing less than ending pollution and full remediation of Ogoniland (and indeed the whole Niger Delta region) should be accepted as an end point.

The report offers guidance to address this aim. Steps include (a) a transition phase for detailed remediation and environmental management planning; (b) an immediate end to bunkering and artisanal refining; (c) creation of a Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Center, which could employ hundreds of local youth; (d) improved remediation management and harmonization and strengthening of various regulatory guidelines; and (e) implementation of eight emergency measures to protect the health and well being of residents in Ogoniland.

In an earlier interview, Mr. Steiner vowed, "I can assure you this report will get the world's attention For the first time we can actually begin to build a plan for remediation". It would indeed be a wonderful thing to see future action that goes beyond ink and rhetoric, but the path will not be easy. Its course will require a huge measure of political will.

What the report does not fully reveal are the hazards and missteps that threatened to upend the study itself. President Jonathan rightly notes that "an environmental war" has been waged in the region for 50 years.

Anyone familiar with the long, tortuous history of UNEP study will be moved to commend the agency and the presidential committee under Father Kukah for their perseverance and courage in seeking to bring the truth to light. Their success was no less due to the peaceful and patient support of the long suffering residents of Ogoniland. The technical and political processes driving the study were intrusive, time-consuming, and at times unclear. For more than four years many strangers were welcomed into Ogoniland and facilitated by men and women in countless ways, despite deep felt grievances born of repeated past injustices from both public and private authorities.

Mr. Steiner has described UNEP's decision to undertake the study a "calculated risk" in the hope of spurring action to rectify what he perceives as a "scandal." Aware that they were entering a "contested area," the project team from UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch in Geneva packed its toolkit of technical acumen and good intentions and walked, somewhat naively, straight into a minefield.

The polemical dimension of the environmental war had created a seasoned cadre of Ogoni activists wary of good intentions. Past experience made them quick to see a hidden agenda behind nearly every initiative. They had also become masters of the message, raising their suspicions in public statements and in the press.

Field-level preparations in the first phase of the environmental study gained some momentum in late 2006. Almost immediately, it proved to be a false start. At a stakeholder engagement meeting in Gokana in November 2006, Rivers State Governor Peter Odili alluded to a lingering problem when he noted that "the exercise had nothing to do with Shell's re-entry into Ogoni."

For some years a rumor had circulated throughout the area that the reconciliation sought by Father Kukah's committee was in fact meant to pave the way for SPDC to resume production in the area. Adding to this suspicion was the discovery that the UNEP Project Coordinator based in Geneva was an environmental assessment specialist who had previously been employed in Oman by a national oil company advised by Shell. For these and other reasons, the study was temporarily suspended until a revised agreement was signed with the Federal Government on November 5, 2007.

By October 2009 UNEP opened a project office in Port Harcourt for its second phase under the direction of a field project coordinator, Mike Cowing. He was assisted by 23 international, national and local staff. A spirit of goodwill and transparency seemed to infuse the project. A web page at the UNEP site offered regular "field news updates" and reported the official "relaunch" of UNEP's environmental assessment in Ogoniland in November 2009. By May 2010 the scientific sampling of oil contaminated sites had begun in collaboration with the Rivers State University of Science and Technology.

In early August 2010 Mr. Cowing shared preliminary results from the field study at a UNEP press conference. His comments, among others, observed that 10 percent of oil spills at the sites studied could be attributed to SPDC, implying that the others were related to the illicit local oil activity.

This assessment was not inconceivable for a region that had no formal oil production since 1993 but which did have an active ongoing informal oil bunkering and refining. However, given that the study had not been completed, the comment was premature. It was also unwise because it failed to underscore the significance of industry responsibility for its ageing infrastructure and slow remediation. Instead it appeared to blame the victim. On August 23 2010 UNEP apologized for the statement.

MOSOP withdrew its support for the study and complained of inadequate stakeholder engagement. (The report, however, says that 264 meetings attended by 23,000 people were held.) Nevertheless, the project continued undeterred. Its team studied over 4,000 samples of sediments from creeks, surface water, rainwater, fish and air - including 142 samples from groundwater wells drilled specifically for the project and soil samples from 780 boreholes. In addition, over 5,000 medical records were examined.

Last week both MOSOP and Amnesty International voiced reservations about the study (which they had not yet seen) on the eve of its submission to the Nigerian president. Overall, the report seems to have won over most skeptics. Its scientific grounding is unprecedented for the Niger Delta and its careful wording reflects a desire to avoid blame and serve as a force for good. Shell announced that it welcomed the study.

What Shell did not welcome was the (perhaps) coincidental timing of a judgment. In a British High Court on the day before the release of the UNEP report, SPDC was ordered to pay compensation of about $410 million to the Bodo community in Ogoniland for two large operational spills in 2008. They resulted in water and soil contamination from 4,000 barrels spilled.

In an open letter, the SPDC managing director Mutiu Sunmonu called the spills a "tragedy," saying that SPDC had always accepted responsibility for paying compensation for spills when they occur as a result of operational failure. At the same time he reminded his audience of the damage to the environment being done by the illegal oil economy.

Remediation of Ogoniland must be the next step. President Jonathan has made muscular statements about the government's position. In accepting the report he vowed it would "not be put in a drawer." But faced with an estimated $1 billion price tag for what may become the world's "most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up," he has also requested UN and industry support in pursuing the remediation plan proposed.

It will take more than money. The president will need to firmly demonstrate his political will. UNEP's call to improve government regulations and oversight will require honest effort and continuous monitoring, ideally with some external involvement.

Its eight "emergency" recommendations - to ensure safe water supply, signpost unsafe polluted areas, and mobilize the community to halt bunkering and artisanal refining - will require swift and concerted government effort at all levels. Ending bunkering and refining in the well developed informal oil industry will present a special challenge.

The report notes that these activities are typically conducted in collusion with government, current or former industry staff, and security forces.

Persuading youth into the legitimate economy could be significantly helped by UNEP's proposal for establishing an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Center. Run properly on a commercial basis, this business could employ large numbers of local workers, especially the young unemployed men most likely to be attracted by the illicit oil economy. The center represents a huge opportunity, as treatment of contaminated soil, bioremediation, and protecting ground water is needed throughout the Niger Delta, well beyond the Ogoni region.

Last week the Minister of the Environment, Hajiya Hadiza Mailafiya, assured reporters that the government was prepared to implement the report and that the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) would be responsible for cleaning up Ogoniland.

If NOSDRA were to take on such a complex technical and political exercise, it will need to make sharp improvements over its past performance. Instead, the report proposes the creation of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority, supported by an extrabudgetary Restoration Fund, to oversee the implementation of its recommendations over the next ten years.

Perhaps the first step the government needs to take is to read, digest, and carefully plan its response to the report. The time of vague assurances has long passed.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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