Fifty years of oil spills in Nigeria’s now infamous Ogoniland region will take up to three decades and over a billion dollars ($1 billion for just the first five years) to restore environments to healthy conditions, according to a new independent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The most thorough study to date has found that widespread pollution has hit the Niger Delta even harder than assumed with devastating impacts on fishing grounds and community health. Last week Shell, one of the biggest operators in Nigeria, admitted to two massive oil spills in 2008 totaling 11 million gallons of crude.
“The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken,” the UNEP report reads.
The UNEP’s field report, which lasted 14 months, surveyed 200 locations, and analyzed 4,000 soil and water samples, was paid for by Shell after the Nigerian government called for an independent investigation. The investigation found at least 10 communities that were immediately at risk from drinking water polluted with hydrocarbons. Even in areas where the ground surface appeared healthy, the assessment found severe contamination below ground, sometimes going deeper than five meters. Many mangroves forests in the region, which local fishermen depend on since they serve as fish nurseries, are covered in bitumen (tar-like petroleum) a centimeter thick. The constant stream of pollution has pushed fish populations outward and devastated some aquaculture.
“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,” reads a press release on the report.
UNEP officials found that one community had three inches of oil (eight centimeters) floating near their drinking wells. Testing the water, officials found levels of benzene 900 times above UN World Health Organization recommendation. A known carcinogen, benzene has been linked to leukemia. The community is near pipeline owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, a state-owned oil company.
“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,” UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner said in a press release. “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.”
The UNEP is recommending that three new institutions are set up to oversee clean-up and that the billion-dollar price tag be met by oil companies and the Nigerian government.
For its part, Shell blamed most of the oil pollution on local communities. “Illegal refining and oil theft in the Niger Delta [...] is the major cause of the environmental damage,” the oil giant stated on its website. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company told Reuters a similar statement, but said they would undertake clean-up measures. Shell has stated that it ‘welcomed’ the report. However, Amnesty International disagrees as to how the oil company is portraying its responsibility.
“This report proves Shell has had a terrible impact in Nigeria, but has got away with denying it for decades, falsely claiming they work to best international standards,” Audrey Gaughran, Global Issues Director of Amnesty, said in a press release. “Shell must put its hands up, and face the fact that it has to deal with the damage it has caused. Trying to hide behind the actions of others, when Shell is the most powerful actor on the scene, simply won’t wash.”
Also this week Shell was given preliminary go-ahead by the Obama Administration to drill exploratory oil wells near the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in the Arctic ocean, a move which was condemned by environmentalists and indigenous groups in the region. Shell is working on its oil spill plan.