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Nigeria: Oil spills and pollution in the Niger Delta

Amnesty International writes on the menance of Oil Spills and its effects on the environment in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

The Niger Delta has suffered for decades from oil spills, which occur both on land and offshore.

Oil spills on land destroy crops and damage the quality and productivity of soil that communities use for farming. Oil in water damages fisheries and contaminates water that people use for drinking and other domestic purposes.

There are a number of reasons why oil spills happen so frequently in the Niger Delta. Spills result from corrosion of oil pipes, poor maintenance of infrastructure, spills or leaks during processing at refineries, human error and as a consequence of deliberate vandalism or theft of oil.

In the 1990s corrosion was acknowledged as a major problem with oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta. Infrastructure was old, and many pipes were above ground. In 1995 SPCD admitted that its infrastructure needed work and that corrosion

was responsible for 50 per of oil spills. The company began a program of upgrading oil pipes and infrastructure (see page 59 for further discussion on SPDC’s action to address oil pollution).

However, today companies increasingly maintain that the majority of oil spills are caused by sabotage and not by their poor infrastructure or operational problems. Communities, and many NGOs,

strongly disagree over the number of spills that are attributed to sabotage, and accuse companies of designating controllable spills as sabotage in order to avoid liability for compensation.

There is no doubt that sabotage, vandalism of oil infrastructure and theft of oil are serious problems in the Niger Delta, although the scale of the problem is unclear. Sabotage ranges from vandalism by community members to theft of oil and deliberate attacks by criminal groups.

Some people damage pipes while trying to steal small quantities of oil for sale at local markets or for personal use. Others damage pipes and installations to extort compensation payments or clean-up contracts from companies.

The increase in community sabotage activities (as opposed to organised theft, described above) is a reflection of wider problems that exist in oil-affected areas of the Niger Delta.

For some people, causing an oil spill and getting a clean-up contract or compensation44 is the only way they can access any benefit from the oil operations.

Establishing the Scale of Oil Spillages

The amount of oil spilt since oil production began in 1958 is not known with any certainty. As far as Amnesty International could ascertain, there has been no published study that looks specifically at the scale of oil spills in the Niger Del ta.

The scale of the problem can, however, be inferred from three pieces of data: Figures that are available for oil discharged on land and at sea. Figures on the number of sites needing remediation (these are sites that have been affected by oil pollution in the past and which are considered to need rehabilitation of some sort). Expert testimony of environmental and oil experts who have lived and/or worked in the Niger Delta.

Oil spill figures vary considerably depending on sources, and figures are contested. Only SPDC reports publicly, from year to year, on the number of spills in its operations. Between 1989 and 1994 the company reported an average of 221 spills per year involving some 7,350 barrels of oil per year

The Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) has reported that 4,835 oil spill incidents were recorded between 1976 and 1996, with a loss of 1.8 million barrels of oil to the environment.49 These data are based mainly on what companies report to the DPR.

According to UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001, with a loss of approximately 3 million barrels of oil.

Both local and international environmental experts claim that the system for reporting of oil spills in the Niger Delta has been completely dysfunctional for decades, and that the figures provided by the companies and reported by DPR do not reflect the full scale of oil spillage.

Drawing on available data, a group of independent environmental and oil experts visiting the Niger Delta in 2006 put the figure for oil spilt,

onshore and offshore, at 9 to 13 million barrels of oil over the past 50 years. The experts took into consideration all sources of oil discharged into the environment, including oil in process water,

oil discharges from tanker washing, oil in gas flares, oil spills from vehicle and road tanker accidents and used oil dumped in the Delta, as well as spills during the Biafran war, when many oil installations were either bombed or sabotaged.

To put this into perspective, people living in the Niger Delta have experienced oil spills on par with the Exxon Valdez every year over the last 50 years.

Despite this, the government and the companies have not taken effective measures over these 50 years to prevent oil spills from recurring, or to properly address the impacts of oil spills.

Pollution-affected Sites Needing Rehabilitation

Under Nigerian oil industry regulations, oil spill sites should be rehabilitated.

This means that the soil and/or water at those sites should be treated to deal with the impacts of pollution and restore them as far as possible to their normal state.

The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) – which was established in 2006 – has tried to identify all sites needing remediation in the Niger Delta. As of April 2008 it had identified approximately 2,000 sites. The majority of these sites were apparently SPDC sites.

Although neither NOSDRA nor the oil companies would provide any information on the size or location of the sites, or the level of pollution,the fact that some 2,000 sites needed rehabilitation in 2008 gives an indication of the widespread nature of the problem. NOSDRA told Amnesty International that some of these sites had been polluted more than once.