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Nigeria: Past Time for Oil Cleanup, 2

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

Editor's Note

"Shell faces a bill of hundreds of millions of dollars after accepting full liability for two massive oil spills that devastated a Nigerian community of 69,000 people and may take at least 20 years to clean up. Experts who studied video footage of the spills at Bodo in Ogoniland say they could together be as large as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, when 10m gallons of oil destroyed the remote coastline." - Guardian

The news on this admission in a class action suit in London came on August 3, the day before release of the comprehensive UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) report on pollution in Ogoniland. The 1998 Bodo spills, as large as they are, are only a fraction of the pervasive pollution of both land and groundwater documented by the study.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the 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. Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out by e-mail today and available on the web at contains the press release on the report from UNEP, and an informative commentary on its significance by Deirdre LaPin, published in

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Nigeria, visit

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

John Vidal, "Shell Accepts Liability for two oil spills in Nigeria"

August 3, 2011 / direct URL:

Oil giant faces a bill of hundreds of millions of dollars following class action suit brought on behalf of communities in Bodo, Ogoniland

Shell faces a bill of hundreds of millions of dollars after accepting full liability for two massive oil spills that devastated a Nigerian community of 69,000 people and may take at least 20 years to clean up.

Experts who studied video footage of the spills at Bodo in Ogoniland say they could together be as large as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, when 10m gallons of oil destroyed the remote coastline.

Until now, Shell has claimed that less than 40,000 gallons were spilt in Nigeria.

Papers seen by the Guardian show that following a class action suit in London over the past four months, the company has accepted responsibility for the 2008 double rupture of the Bodo-Bonny trans-Niger pipeline that pumps 120,000 barrels of oil a day though the community.

Ogoniland is a small region of the Niger delta which threw out Shell in 1994 for its pollution but then saw eight of its leaders, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed by the government.

The crude oil that gushed unchecked from the two Bodo spills, which occurred within months of each other, in 2008 has clearly devastated the 20 sq km network of creeks and inlets on which Bodo and as many as 30 other smaller settlements depend for food, water and fuel.

No attempt has been made to clean up the oil, which has collected on the creek sides, washes in and out on the tides and has seeped deep into the water table and farmland.

According to the communities in Bodo, in two years the company has only offered 3,500 British pounds together with 50 bags of rice, 50 bags of beans and a few cartons of sugar, tomatoes and groundnut oil. The offers were rejected as "insulting, provocative and beggarly" by the chiefs of Bodo, but later accepted on legal advice.

Shell's acceptance of full liability for the spills follows a class action suit bought on behalf of communities by London law firm Leigh Day and Co, which represented the Ivory Coast community that suffered health damage following the dumping of toxic waste by a ship leased to multinational oil company Trafigura in 2006.

Many other impoverished communities in the delta are now expected to seek damages for oil pollution against Shell in the British courts. On average, there are three oil spills a day by Shell and other companies working in the delta. Shell consistently blames the spills on local youths who, they argue, sabotage their network of pipelines.

"The news that Shell has accepted liability in Britain will be greeted with joy in the delta. The British courts may now be inundated with legitimate complaints," said Patrick Naagbartonm, coordinator for the Centre of Environment and Human Rights in Port Harcourt.

Later this week the company will be heavily implicated by the UN for the environmental disaster in the Niger delta which has seen more than 7,000 oil spills in the low lying swamps and farmland since 1989. Shell first discovered oil in the Niger delta in 1956. According to Amnesty International, more than 13m barrels of oil have been spilt in the delta, twice as much as by BP in last year's Gulf of Mexico spill.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, funded by Shell, will be presented to president Goodluck Jonathan on Thursday and is expected to be released on Friday in London.

UNEP's report, the first peer-reviewed scientific study of more than 60 spills, is expected to say that oil pollution in Ogoniland is much worse than previously believed, having sunk deep into the water table. Many spills have not been cleared up since 1970 and the effects on the local economy, health and development have been severe. The report will not apportion blame for individual spills.

International oil spill assessment experts who have seen the Bodo spill believe that it could cost the company more than $100m to clean up properly and restore the devastated mangrove forests that used to line the creeks and rivers but which have been killed by the oil.

Proceedings against Royal Dutch Shell and Shell petroleum development company (SPDC) Nigeria began in the high court on 6 April 2011. Last week Shell Nigeria said: "SPDC accepts responsibility under the Oil Pipelines Act for the two oil spills both of which were due to equipment failure. SPDC acknowledges that it is liable to pay compensation - to those who are entitled to receive such compensation."


The UNEP pollution research project in Ogoniland and its political importance

Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands)

Factsheet, August 2, 2011 / direct URL:

In 2010, after long years of talks and negotiations, the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) started a study to get a clear image of oil pollution in Ogoniland, a region where oil production has been on hold for over 18 years now. The Ogoni people forced Shell out of their region after years of protests against pollution and the lack of social development. Ever since, Shell and the Nigerian authorities have been looking for a way to appease the region that is so important for oil production and oil transit, and therefore also for the cash flow to Shell and the Nigerian State.

What is Ogoniland?

Ogoniland is located in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria. Ogoniland sits between Port Harcourt, the oil capital of Nigeria and home to Shell Nigeria, and Bonny Island, where the main oil-export terminals are located. Main oil export pipelines such as the trans-Niger pipeline run through Ogoniland. Most Ogoni settlements are near the main river that connects Port Harcourt to the Atlantic Ocean or along other tidal creeks.

The Ogoni, like most Niger Delta inhabitants, are farmers and fishermen. Traditionally, the Niger Delta was a fertile region, important for food production. The Ogoni were a thriving ethnic nationality. As the Ogoni live relatively close to a large city and major oil installations, they have been very much aware of what has been going on since oil was discovered.

Shell in Ogoniland

Ogoniland is an important region for Shell as its main Nigerian export pipelines and major onshore oil fields are located in Ogoniland. Shell had to leave Ogoniland in 1993 and has not produced oil there since. In early 2011 the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) announced it planned to restart oil production in Ogoniland on behalf of the Shell joint venture. The Ogoni however made clear that the NNPC is not welcome either.

A very short history of Ogoniland

Ogoniland is part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which was established by the British and became independent after the Second World War. Many different ethnic groups and religions were brought together in one large country. Soon after Nigeria's independence, oil production took off. Ethnic groups in the south of the country felt discriminated against by more populous ethnic groups and decided to leave the Federation. Their new country was called Biafra. This however turned out to be a dramatic mistake, as the Nigerian government and army fought hard to regain control of Biafra and its oil.

Since the war, oil companies and the State have been perceived as being hand in glove: a colonial power profiting from the oil in the Delta Region without bringing benefits to the region. The Ogoni turned out to be the most organised ethnic group and, inspired by poet Ken Saro Wiwa, organised mass demonstrations against Shell, forcing the oil company out. A few years later, on 10 November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues were hanged by the Nigerian military government.

Scepticism and resentment

While the Ogoni were successful in stopping oil production, the oil pollution remained. Over the years many promises were made and studies were done in Ogoniland and elsewhere. Effective clean-up of older spills, however, never took place. It is quite clear to local people where the pollution is and they do not see why research is necessary. There is a lot of scepticism regarding the willingness of the state and federal governments and the oil companies to spend money on cleaning up the Delta. Corruption and a lack of independent institutions make it difficult to embark on a successful clean-up project including monitoring studies.

The UNEP project

As the anger in the Delta grew and government and oil companies became convinced that action should be taken to prevent a real uprising, they turned to the UNEP, an independent, outside institution. It took over a year before the state and federal governments agreed on the project plan, but the project was started in 2010. The aim was to map all polluted sites in Ogoniland so that a plan for clean-up could be constructed. The map was to be published after a year, in early 2011. The UNEP worked with foreign experts and trained local sample-takers and liaison officers. Samples were analysed in foreign laboratories.

The project was paid for by Shell and as a UN institution, the UNEP reports to the Nigerian Government. The project went well and the final report was to be published in February or March 2011. But then the publication was postponed until after the elections.

Mike Cowing's statement

June 2010: Mike Cowing, the project manager of the UNEP pollution study, appeared on the Dutch TV documentary (Zembla) and was very critical of Shell's behaviour in Nigeria. He explained that Shell did not clean up pollution from an oil spill in Goi according to international standards.

August 2010: An article was circulated in the press stating that at a UNEP press conference Mike Cowing said that 90% of oil spills in Ogoniland are caused by gangs that steal oil from pipelines, a practice called illegal bunkering. NGOs – amongst which Milieudefensie [Friends of the Earth Netherlands] and FoEI – reacted with utter amazement. They pointed out the fact that the UNEP was not investigating the causes of pollution, that the UNEP project was far from finished and that Mr Cowing must have been making statements on the basis of hearsay. Which spills and which period Mr Cowing was speaking about never became clear.

23 August 2010: UNEP issued a press release officially renouncing the statements of Mr Cowing. Soon after, Mike Cowing was replaced as project manager but remained in Nigeria working on the project.

Next step: Clean-up and prevention

Now that the study is finished, clean-up should start as soon as possible. Too much time has been lost in which many Ogoni have been unable to fish or farm, unable to generate any income and often even unable to drink their local water. According to Nigerian law, the oil companies are responsible for clean-up irrespective of the cause of an oil spill.

The Niger Delta is currently in a difficult situation. As fishing and farming are problematic and there is a lot of anger towards oil companies, bunkering and attacks on oil installations continue, causing more oil pollution. Cleanup and development are therefore essential for the prevention of new spills, in addition to proper maintenance monitoring of pipelines, carrying out integrity checks and guarding of pipelines.

What remains: 80% of the Niger Delta

Ogoniland is an important and heavily polluted part of the Delta Region. However, it is a small part of the Delta and an unknown amount of oil lies elsewhere in the Delta. International oil companies should ensure that the whole Delta is cleaned up and that no new spills occur.

Responsibility of the Dutch and British Governments

Britain and the Netherlands as home countries of Royal Dutch Shell have responsibilities to support and motivate the Nigerian Government in dealing with oil pollution and oil companies. This is also the case with France for Total, Italy for ENI and the USA for Exxon. Useful expertise concerning pollution control and the regulation of oil companies is available in all these home countries.

Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland

UNEP, August 2011

[Excerpts from executive summary. For full executive summary, full report, and detailed site reports, visit

Executive Summary


Covering around 1,000 km2 in Rivers State, southern Nigeria, Ogoniland has been the site of oil industry operations since the late 1950s. Ogoniland has a tragic history of pollution from oil spills and oil well fires, although no systematic scientific information has been available about the ensuing contamination.

With this independent study, conducted at the request of the Federal Government of Nigeria, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reveals the nature and extent of oil contamination in Ogoniland.

The Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland covers contaminated land, groundwater, surface water, sediment, vegetation, air pollution, public health, industry practices and institutional issues.

This report represents the best available understanding of what has happened to the environment of Ogoniland – and the corresponding implications for affected populations – and provides clear operational guidance as to how that legacy can be addressed.

Assessment process

Involving desk review, fieldwork and laboratory analysis, the two year study of the environmental and public health impacts of oil contamination in Ogoniland is one of the most complex on-the-ground assessments ever undertaken by UNEP.

UNEP recruited a team of international experts in disciplines such as contaminated land, water, forestry and public health, who worked under the guidance of senior UNEP managers. This team worked side-by-side with local experts, academics and support teams comprised of logistics, community liaison and security staff.

The UNEP project team surveyed 122 kms of pipeline rights of way and visited all oil spill sites, oil wells and other oil-related facilities in Ogoniland, including decommissioned and abandoned facilities, that were known and accessible to UNEP during the fieldwork period, based on information provided by the Government regulators, Shell Petroleum Development Company (Nigeria) Ltd (SPDC) and community members in and around Ogoniland. Public meetings staged throughout Ogoniland during each phase of the study helped to build understanding of UNEP's project and to foster community participation

During aerial reconnaissance missions, UNEP experts observed oil pollution which was not readily visible from the ground, including artisanal refining sites. Information provided by Ogoniland residents about oil contamination in their communities supplemented official oil spill data supplied by the Nigerian Government and SPDC.

Following its initial investigations, UNEP identified 69 sites for detailed soil and groundwater investigations. In addition, samples of community drinking water, sediments from creeks, surface water, rainwater, fish and air were collected throughout Ogoniland and in several neighbouring areas. Altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water drawn from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study, and soil extracted from 780 boreholes. The UNEP project team also examined more than 5,000 medical records and staged 264 formal community meetings in Ogoniland attended by over 23,000 people.


A selection of the study's key findings and recommendations are summarized below. Given the vast amount of data generated during the assessment, the following content should not be considered in isolation.

Summary of findings

UNEP's field observations and scientific investigations found that oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severely impacting many components of the environment. Even though the oil industry is no longer active in Ogoniland, oil spills continue to occur with alarming regularity. The Ogoni people live with this pollution every day.

As Ogoniland has high rainfall, any delay in cleaning up an oil spill leads to oil being washed away, traversing farmland and almost always ending up in the creeks. When oil reaches the root zone, crops and other plants begin to experience stress and can die, and this is a routine observation in Ogoniland. At one site, Ejama-Ebubu in Eleme local government area (LGA), the study found heavy contamination present 40 years after an oil spill occurred, despite repeated clean-up attempts.

The assessment found that overlapping authorities and responsibilities between ministries and a lack of resources within key agencies has serious implications for environmental management on-the-ground, including enforcement.

Remote sensing revealed the rapid proliferation in the past two years of artisanal refining, whereby crude oil is distilled in makeshift facilities. The study found that this illegal activity is endangering lives and causing pockets of environmental devastation in Ogoniland and neighbouring areas.

Contaminated soil and groundwater

  • The report concludes that pollution of soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, sediments and swampland. Most of the contamination is from crude oil although contamination by refined product was found at three locations.
  • The assessment found there is no continuous clay layer across Ogoniland, exposing the groundwater in Ogoniland (and beyond) to hydrocarbons spilled on the surface. In 49 cases, UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 m. This finding has major implications for the type of remediation required.
  • At two-thirds of the contaminated land sites close to oil industry facilities which were assessed in detail, the soil contamination exceeds Nigerian national standards, as set out in the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industries in Nigeria (EGASPIN).
  • At 41 sites, the hydrocarbon pollution has reached the groundwater at levels in excess of the Nigerian standards as per the EGASPIN legislation.
  • The most serious case of groundwater contamination is at Nisisioken Ogale, in Eleme LGA, close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company product pipeline where an 8 cm layer of refined oil was observed floating on the groundwater which serves the community wells.


  • Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves denuded of leaves and stems, leaving roots coated in a bitumen-like substance sometimes 1 cm or more thick. Mangroves are spawning areas for fish and nurseries for juvenile fish and the extensive pollution of these areas is impacting the fish life-cycle.
  • Any crops in areas directly impacted by oil spills will be damaged, and root crops, such as cassava, will become unusable. When farming recommences, plants generally show signs of stress and yields are reportedly lower than in non-impacted areas.
  • 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.
  • Channels that have been widened and the resulting dredged material are clearly evident in satellite images, decades after the dredging operation. Without proper rehabilitation, former mangrove areas which have been converted to bare ground are being colonized by invasive species such as nipa palm (which appears to be more resistant to heavy hydrocarbon pollution than native vegetation).
  • 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 307,381 m2. If left unchecked, this may lead to irreversible loss of mangrove habitat in this area.


  • The UNEP investigation found that the surface water throughout the creeks contains hydrocarbons. Floating layers of oil vary from thick black oil to thin sheens. The highest reading of dissolved hydrocarbon in the water column, of 7,420 micrograms/l, was detected at AtabaOtokroma, bordering the Gokana and Andoni LGAs.
  • Fish tend to leave polluted areas in search of cleaner water, and fishermen must therefore also move to less contaminated areas in search of fish. When encountered in known polluted areas, fishermen reported that they were going to fishing grounds further upstream or downstream.
  • Despite community concerns about the quality of fish, the results show that the accumulation of hydrocarbons in fish is not a serious health issue in Ogoniland but that the fisheries sector is suffering due to the destruction of fish habitat in the mangroves and highly persistent contamination of many of the creeks, making them unsuitable for fishing.
  • Where a number of entrepreneurs had set up fish farms in or close to the creeks, their businesses have been ruined by an ever-present layer of floating oil.
  • The wetlands around Ogoniland are highly degraded and facing disintegration. The study concludes that while it is technically feasible to restore effective ecosystem functioning of the wetlands, this will only be possible if technical and political initiatives are undertaken.

Public health

  • The Ogoni community is exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in outdoor air and drinking water, sometimes at elevated concentrations. They are also exposed through dermal contacts from contaminated soil, sediments and surface water.
  • Since average life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 50 years, it is a fair assumption that most members of the current Ogoniland community have lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives.
  • Of most immediate concern, community members at Nisisioken Ogale are drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. The report states that this contamination warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts.
  • Hydrocarbon contamination was found in water taken from 28 wells at 10 communities adjacent to contaminated sites. At seven wells the samples are at least 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard of 3 micrograms/l. Local communities are aware of the pollution and its dangers but state that they continue to use the water for drinking, bathing, washing and cooking as they have no alternative.
  • Benzene was detected in all air samples at concentrations ranging from 0.155 to 48.2 micrograms/m3. Approximately 10 per cent of detected benzene concentrations in Ogoniland were higher than the concentrations WHO and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) report as corresponding to a 1 in 10,000 cancer risk. ...

Institutional issues

  • First issued in 1992, the EGASPIN form the operational basis for environmental regulation of the oil industry in Nigeria. However, this key legislation is internally inconsistent with regard to one of the most important criteria for oil spill and contaminated site management – specifically the criteria which trigger remediation or indicate its closure (called the 'intervention' and 'target' values respectively).
  • The study found that the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) have differing interpretations of EGASPIN. This is enabling the oil industry to close down the remediation process well before contamination has been eliminated and soil quality has been restored to achieve functionality for human, animal and plant life.
  • The Nigerian Government agencies concerned lack qualified technical experts and resources. In the five years since NOSDRA was established, so few resources have been allocated that the agency has no proactive capacity for oil-spill detection. In planning their inspection visits to some oil spill sites, the regulatory authority is wholly reliant on the oil industry for logistical support.


Oil industry practices

  • The study concludes that the control, maintenance and decommissioning of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland are inadequate. Industry best practices and SPDC's own procedures have not been applied, creating public safety issues.
  • Remediation by enhanced natural attenuation (RENA) – 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 nature of the oil, temperature and an underlying layer of clay, hydrocarbons will not move deeper. However, this basic premise is not sustainable as observations made by UNEP show that contamination can often penetrate deeper than 5 m and has reached the groundwater in many locations.
  • Ten out of the 15 investigated sites which SPDC records show as having completed remediation, still have pollution exceeding the SPDC (and government) remediation closure values. The study found that the contamination at eight of these sites has migrated to the groundwater.
  • In January 2010, a new Remediation Management System was adopted by all Shell Exploration and Production Companies in Nigeria. The study found that while the new changes are an improvement, they still do not meet the local regulatory requirements or international best practices.

Summary of recommendations

The study concludes that the environmental restoration of Ogoniland is possible but may take 25 to 30 years. The report contains numerous recommendations that, once implemented, will have an immediate and positive impact on Ogoniland. Further recommendations have longer timelines that will bring lasting improvements for Ogoniland and Nigeria as a whole.

The hydraulic connection between contaminated land and creeks has important implications for the sequence of remediation to be carried out. Until the land-based contamination has been dealt with, it will be futile to begin a clean-up of the creeks.

Due to the wide extent of contamination in Ogoniland and nearby areas, and the varying degrees of degradation, there will not be one single clean-up technique appropriate for the entire area. A combination of approaches will therefore need to be considered, ranging from active intervention for cleaning the top soil and replanting mangrove to passive monitoring of natural regeneration. Practical action at the regulatory, operational and monitoring levels is also proposed.

It is recommended that the restoration of mangroves be viewed as a large-scale pilot project in which multiple approaches to clean-up and restoration, once proven, can be replicated elsewhere as needed in the Niger Delta.


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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