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Africa: Tracking Toxic Pollution

AfricaFocus Bulletin
February 26, 2014 (140226)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The damages produced by modern economies, termed "externalities" by economists, most often do not figure in the market signals shaping corporate profits and therefore corporate decision-making. The result, both in advanced economies or around the world, includes not only the massive threat to our common future through global warming, but also extraordinary levels of toxic pollution disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. Of the top ten toxic threats around the world identified in a new report, three are in Africa: the Agbogbloshie Dumpsite for e-waste in Ghana, the entire Niger Delta region in Nigeria, and the now-closed but still deadly lead mining site in Kabwe, Zambia.

While governments have the primary responsibility to act, their failures are leaving much of the work in tracking this toxic pollution and campaigning for real solutions to non-governmental organizations and activists. The information they are uncovering, however incomplete, shows clearly that the issues are international and that the solutions must also be international.

Much of the e-waste being processed in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa is imported from Europe. The exploitation of the Niger Delta and the consistent failure to address massive toxic pollution is the responsibility both of foreign oil companies and of the Nigerian government. And the cleanup of the legacy of 90 years of lead mining in Zambia is being addressed both by the Zambian government and by international organizations.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from two recent reports on some of the worst cases of toxic pollution in Africa: (1) a report from Amnesty International on the flaws of oil spills investigations in the Niger Delta by oil companies and the Nigerian government, and (2) information on three African cases, including the Niger Delta, from a report on areas of "top ten toxic threats" in the world.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the environment and climate change, visit

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Nigeria, including the Niger Delta, see



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

Bad Information: Oil spill investigations in the Niger Delta

Amnesty International November 2013

Index: AFR 44/028/2013

[Excerpts only. For full version, including footnotes and graphics, visit / direct URL:


Hundreds of oil spills occur in Nigeria every year, causing significant harm to the environment, destroying local livelihoods and placing human health at serious risk. These spills are caused by corrosion, poor maintenance of oil infrastructure, equipment failure, sabotage and theft of oil. For the last decade oil companies in Nigeria - in particular Shell - have defended the scale of pollution by claiming that the vast majority of oil spills are caused by sabotage and theft of oil.

There is no legitimate basis for this claim. It relies on the outcome of an oil spill investigation process - commonly known as the Joint Investigation Visit or JIV process - in which the companies themselves are the primary investigators. This report exposes several serious deficiencies and abuses within the JIV process that render it wholly unreliable as a basis for making claims about the cause of oil spills, the volume of oil spilt or the area impacted.

The report is based on an examination of the JIV process and - critically - of how data are recorded during the process. It draws on expert analysis obtained from a US pipeline specialist who reviewed JIV investigation documents and data provided by oil companies and regulators to researchers in the course of investigations.

The report presents evidence not only of serious and systemic flaws in the oil spill investigation process, but also specific examples of instances where the cause of an oil spill appears to have been wrongly attributed to sabotage. The evidence includes a secretly filmed video of an oil spill investigation. In addition, the report exposes serious problems with how the volume of oil spilt is assessed and recorded; it is likely that the volume of oil recorded as spilt in many cases is incorrect.

The human rights impacts are serious - both the cause of a spill and the volume spilt affect the compensation a community receives. If the spill is recorded as caused by sabotage or theft, the affected community gets no compensation, regardless of the damage done to their farms and fisheries. This is based on a provision in Nigeria's oil legislation which Amnesty International and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development believe needs to be amended. Oil companies should be held responsible for a spill that is due to sabotage or theft if they have failed to take sufficient measures to prevent tampering with their infrastructure.

The majority of the report's findings relate to the Shell Petroleum Development Company, which is the major onshore operator in the Niger Delta. The report acknowledges improvements in Shell's JIV process since 2011, when the company began to publish JIV reports on its website. Other companies have yet to do this.

However, serious flaws remain within Shell's post-2011 oil spill investigation process. These include weaknesses in the underlying evidence used to attribute spills to sabotage and the fact that the JIV reports are filled out by Shell after the joint investigation process - not as part of the joint investigation process. There is, consequently, a lack of transparency and oversight in terms of what is recorded on the new JIV reports.


Despite its frequent references to sabotage and theft, Shell has failed to take effective measures to protect its infrastructure from tampering. Vulnerable infrastructure has been left exposed to vandalism and theft. In addition, evidence has recently emerged to suggest that Shell's own contractors may be involved in oil theft.

The report also makes a number of findings in relation to the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, a subsidiary of the Italian company, ENI. Although Agip operates over a smaller area than Shell, there have been almost twice as many spills reported from its operations in recent years. In 2012, there were a staggering 474 spills from Agip's operations, compared with 207 from Shell. Agip attributes the vast majority of spills to sabotage but provides absolutely no information to support this allegation. Furthermore, such a high number of spills, from whatever cause, is indefensible for a responsible operator.

Sabotage and theft of oil are serious problems in the Niger Delta. However, international oil companies are overstating the case in an effort to deflect attention away from the many oil spills that are due to corrosion and equipment failure. Moreover, securing oil infrastructure against such acts is - to a substantial extent - the responsibility of the operator.

While many of the issues covered in this report relate to actions and failures of oil companies, it is clear that the government of Nigeria is failing in its duty to control the oil industry and prevent environmental damage and human rights abuses. Regulatory oversight of the oil industry in the Niger Delta is extremely weak. The report confirms what others, including UN agencies, have found in relation to a lack of capacity and conflicts of interest affecting the main regulators. It is clear that regulatory certification of companies' oil spill processes is not credible.

The report also notes that almost everyone involved in oil spill investigations is male. In general the oil companies and Nigerian oil regulators only deal with chiefs and other elite male members of spill-affected communities, reinforcing gender stereotypes and economic disadvantage in the Niger Delta.

While oil spills are a significant problem in themselves, the impact on human rights is exacerbated by the failure to clean up and remediate the affected areas properly and swiftly. The final chapter of the report looks specifically at Shell and the company's claims about clean up of oil spills, following a damning report by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2011. Shell has repeatedly claimed that it cleans up all oil spills, regardless of the cause. The report questions Shell's statements and data on clean up and remediation. It concludes that Shell's public claims do not stand up to scrutiny and are inconsistent with existing evidence.

The report concludes that the JIV process lacks credibility and cannot be relied upon to provide either accurate information on individual spills or as a basis for wider claims about the proportion of oil spilt due to sabotage, theft, corrosion or any other cause. Based on the available evidence corrosion and operational failures remain a significant cause of oil spills, and more oil has been spilt due to operational failures in the past six years than Shell has claimed.

This report also concludes that data from Shell operations in Nigeria - whether on the cause of oil spills or the nature of clean up - cannot be the basis for any meaningful assessment of the company's impacts because of the serious flaws in how the data is compiled. The report therefore strongly questions how media and investors can rely on Shell's claims about the company's environmental impacts in Nigeria.

Finally, the report makes recommendations to further improve JIVs and to address past injustices that have been the result of inadequacies in the JIV process. This includes taking all feasible steps to ensure oil spill investigations can be independently verified, ensuring that women are not excluded from the process, and ensuring that all members of the affected communities have full access to all relevant information in an accessible format.

Oil companies have challenged the findings contained in this report and their responses are reflected in the text.


1.2 Human Rights Impact of Oil Pollution

In 2001, in relation to a case on the impact of the oil industry in the Ogoniland area of the Niger Delta, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights stated: "pollution and environmental degradation to a level humanly unacceptable has made living in Ogoni land a nightmare." In a landmark decision, the African Commission found Nigeria to be in violation of a number of rights guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and stated that:

"[D]espite its obligation to protect persons against interferences in the enjoyment of their rights, the Government of Nigeria facilitated the destruction of the Ogoniland. Contrary to its Charter obligations and despite such internationally established principles, the Nigerian Government has given the green light to private actors, and the oil Companies in particular, to devastatingly affect the well-being of the Ogonis." - African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

The decision of the African Commission clearly recognized the link between environmental destruction and human rights, and the responsibility of the government to protect people from such damage by non-state actors such as companies. The Commission called on the government, amongst other things, to protect the environment, health and livelihood of the people of Ogoniland; to ensure adequate compensation to victims of the human rights violations; and to undertake a comprehensive clean-up of lands and rivers damaged by oil. The government has not implemented any of these recommendations.


The main human rights impacts documented by Amnesty International and CEHRD26 are:

  • Violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food - as a consequence of the impact of oil-related pollution and environmental damage on agriculture and fisheries, which are the main sources of food for many people in the Niger Delta.
  • Violations of the right to gain a living through work - also as a consequence of widespread damage to agriculture and fisheries, because these are also the main sources of livelihood for many people in the Niger Delta.
  • Violations of the right to water - which occur when oil spills pollute water used for drinking and other domestic purposes.
  • Violations of the right to health - which arise from failure to secure the underlying determinants of health, including a healthy environment, and failure to enforce laws to protect the environment and prevent pollution.
  • Failure to ensure access to effective remedy for people whose human rights have been violated.

These violations and abuses affect people differently; the different impacts on women and men, children and the elderly, and people with particular vulnerabilities, are rarely identified or discussed. Research for this report found that women are frequently excluded from all aspects of post-oil spill processes, and this can leave women in particularly difficult situations with respect to damage done to their livelihoods.

The abuses and violations are, primarily, the result of the operations of the oil companies and the almost complete failure of the Nigerian government to regulate the oil industry and protect the rights of the people of the Niger Delta.


In July 2009 the Nigerian NGO, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), filed a case against the Federal Government of Nigeria and six oil companies over alleged violations of human rights associated with oil pollution in the Niger Delta. The complaint alleged "Violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, to work, to health, to water, to life and human dignity, to a clean and healthy environment, and to economic and social development - as a consequence of: the impact of oil-related pollution and environmental damage on agriculture and fisheries."

While the Court declined jurisdiction over the oil companies, the case proceeded against the government. On 17 December 2012, in a groundbreaking judgment, the Court found Nigeria responsible for the abuses of the oil companies and made clear that the government must hold the companies to account.

The court made several orders - firstly, that the government must take effective measures within the shortest time to address the issues of oil pollution and devastation in the Niger Delta; secondly, that the government must take immediate steps to bring perpetrators of the violations in Niger Delta to account; thirdly, that the government must take effective measures to prevent further occurrence of the violations of the rights. The government of Nigeria has failed, to date, to act on any of the court's orders.

The World's Worst 2013: The Top Ten Toxic Threats

Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland

[Excerpts only. For full report see]

Introduction and Context

This 2013 report is the eighth in an annual series of reports released by Green Cross Switzerland and Blacksmith Institute. ...

This Top Ten Toxic Threats report builds upon previous reports to highlight the progress of many contaminated sites and an increased understanding of the far-reaching effects of toxic pollution. The 2012 report utilized disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) to reveal that over 125 million people are at risk from toxic pollution in 49 low- and middle-income countries. That number has since been revised up to 200 million. The strikingly high number of people at risk established toxic pollution as a public health threat equivalent to more highly publicized public health problems such as malaria and tuberculosis. ...

Toxic Pollution and Human Health

The health effects of toxic pollution vary greatly in both the range and severity of disease and disability with which they are associated. The World Health Organization, in conjunction with the World Bank, estimates that 23% of deaths in the developing world are attributable to environmental factors, including pollution, and that environmental risk factors contribute to more than 80% of regularly reported diseases. ... a recent study of more than 3,000 toxic sites, funded by the World Bank, European Commission, and Asian Development Bank, shows that as many as 200 million people globally may be affected by toxic chemicals.


Collectively, the 2013 list is a snapshot of some of the worst pollution problems in the world. The health of more than 200 million people is at risk daily from pollution issues like those found at the sites listed here. The goal of this report is illuminate this often overlooked public health threat rather than to be comprehensive.

Agbogbloshie Dumpsite, Ghana

Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, is the second largest e-waste processing area in West Africa. E-waste, or electronic waste, is a broad term referring to a range of electronics, including refrigerators, microwaves, and televisions. Because of the heterogeneous composition of these materials, recycling them safely is complex and can require a high level of skill.

Ghana annually imports around 215,000 tons of secondhand consumer electronics from abroad, primarily from Western Europe, and generates another 129,000 tons of e-waste every year. Assuming growth continues in a linear manner, Ghana's e-waste imports will double by 2020. Approximately half of these imports can be immediately utilized, or reconditioned and sold. The remainder of the material is recycled, and valuable parts are salvaged.

A range of recovery activities takes place in Agbogbloshie, each presenting unique occupational and ecological risks. The primary activity of concern from a public health perspective is the burning of sheathed cables to recover the copper material inside. Styrofoam packaging is utilized as a fuel to burn the material in open areas. Cables can contain a range of heavy metals, including lead. To some extent, these metals can migrate through particulate in the smoke, while significant amounts are also left behind on area soils.

Agbogbloshie is a vibrant informal settlement with considerable overlap between industrial, commercial, and residential zones. Heavy metals released in the burning process easily migrate into homes, food markets and other public areas. Samples taken around the perimeter of Agbogbloshie, for instance, found a presence of lead levels as high as 18,125 ppm in soil. The USEPA standard for lead in soil is 400 ppm. Another set of samples taken from five workers on the site found aluminum, copper, iron, and lead levels above ACGIH TLV guidelines. For instance, it was found that one volunteer had aluminum exposure levels of 17 mg/m3 compared with the ACGIH TLV guideline of 1.0 mg/m3.

A conservative estimate of the population at risk might fall in the area of 40,000 people. However, a more in-depth assessment would be required to better capture the risk, which might affect as many as 250,000 people. Since 2008, Blacksmith Institute and its partner, Green Advocacy Ghana (GreenAd), have been piloting technologies to aid recyclers in replacing the burning process. Hand wire-stripping tools introduced in 2010 were met with a small-degree of success but burning remained the preferred method. Currently, project partners are working to mechanize the wire-stripping process through the creation of work stations outfitted with a variety of wire-stripping machines. These machines eliminate air pollution and centralize recycling to reduce wide-spread communal exposures. Comprehensive health and occupational safety trainings, implemented since 2008, have built the capacity of workers and community members for reducing the risk of heavy metal exposure. ...

Kabwe, Zambia

Kabwe, the second largest city in Zambia, is located about 150 kilometers north of the nation's capital, Lusaka. A 2006 health study discovered that, on average, children's blood lead levels in Kabwe exceeded the recommended levels by five to ten times. This was the result of contamination from lead mining in the area, which is situated around the Copperbelt. In 1902, rich deposits of lead were discovered, leading mining and smelting operations to run almost continuously for over 90 years without the government adequately addressing the potential dangers of lead. Smelting was largely unregulated throughout the 20th century in Kabwe, and these smelters released heavy metals in the form of dust particles, which settled on the ground in the surrounding areas. While the mine is currently closed, artisanal activity at tailings piles continues.

The current CDC recommended level of lead in children's blood is 5 ug/dL. Levels in excess of 120 ug/dL can potentially be fatal. In some neighborhoods in Kabwe, blood concentrations of 200 ug/dL or more were recorded in children, and records show average blood levels of children tested ranged between 50 and 100 ug/dL. Children who play in the soil and young men who artisanally mine the area are most at risk.

The Zambian government has made significant progress in dealing with the issue, particularly through a USD 26 million remediation program funded by World Bank and Nordic Development Fund from 2003 to 2011. Despite these efforts, the site still poses an acute health risk that will require further work.

Niger River Delta, Nigeria

The Niger River Delta is a densely populated region that extends over 70,000 km2 and makes up nearly 8% of Nigeria's land mass. It is heavily polluted by oil and hydrocarbons, as it has been the site of major petroleum operations since the late 1950s. Between 1976 and 2001 there were nearly 7,000 incidents involving oil spills where most of the oil was never recovered. As of 2012, some 2 million barrels (320,000 m3) of oil were being extracted from the delta every day. Groundwater and soil have been heavily polluted in the process, which has also devastated aquatic and agricultural communities.

An average of 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the Niger delta every year due to mechanical failure, third party activity, and many unknown causes. The spills have not only contaminated the surface and ground water of the delta but also the ambient air and locally grown crops with hydrocarbons, including known carcinogens like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). A 2011 report from UNEP concluded that soil and groundwater pollution levels exceeded national standards at two-thirds of reviewed locations in and around the Niger delta. These spills have affected local population health in a number of ways. One article published in the Nigerian Medical Journal in 2013 estimated that the widespread pollution could lead to a 60% reduction in household food security and a 24% increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition. This is in addition to the fact that the crude oil is likely hemotoxic and can cause infertility and cancer.


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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