It was drizzling on a Thursday afternoon as Oluwadaisi Ogunne, 45, a mother of six, struggled to put firewood together in preparation for the family’s dinner. As she struggled to make the fire, the rain stood as an obstacle frustrating her efforts to make a meal for the family.
She sat down very close to the walkway in a sober mood thinking about how her life and that of her family have suddenly changed. She later expressed anger over everything happening in the community aftermath of an oil well explosion.
“Our farmland and fishing areas have gone to the pipeline explosion and we are left with nothing,” Mrs Ogunne said in an emotional laden tone.
“They have denied us access to the farmland, our water has been contaminated and we can go fishing again.”
Before the April fire explosion which occurred at Oju Imole Oil Well – No 1 (a facility allegedly run by Chevron) in Oju Imole community in Ugboland, Ilaje Local Government Area of Ondo State, Southwest Nigeria, the Ogunne family engaged in farming and fishing. They sold smoked and fresh fish, crayfish, mango, coconut, and others, within and outside the community.
Ilaje Local Government Area consists of over 400 towns and villages, covering an area of 3,000 square kilometres. The local government shares borders in the north with Okitipupa Local Government, the south by the Atlantic Ocean, in the west by Ogun State and in the east by Delta State.
Ilaje has a population figure of over 290,615, based on the 2006 census, with abundant economic potentials such as bitumen, oil exploration, fishing, and farming, among others.
For the agrarian family, the April explosion was a sad tale of an end for their daily bread.
Mrs Ogunne told this reporter that her family now finds it hard to eat a square meal per day after the fire incident. Before now, she said, the family’s farm produce was enough to sustain it.
“Since the explosion happened we have been stopped from visiting the farm to fetch firewood and plant our crops. This is the rainy season, we have no access to reap some of the farm crops becoming so hard for us to even eat at home.
“We now buy firewood from neighbouring communities at high cost despite having it in abundant at our community.”
For them, firewood is very helpful in roasting some of the smoked fish and crayfish they sell around the state.
Mrs Ogunne said after the explosion, the government and oil operators promised to compensate them but “we have not heard anything from them.”
“Now that they have quenched the fire, they still do not allow us to visit the farm, it is killing us, we have complained to the Baale (head of the community), and he is also tired of the matter.
“They should help us, they should help us, and not let us die because of the presence of an Oil Well in our community,” she said using her wrapper to wipe tears from her eyes.
“We don’t have anything in the community, no power supply, no safe drinking water, now they have denied us access to our farm and fishing areas.”
Fidelis Eyinola, the head (Baale) of Oju Imole community, said the impact of the fire incident lingers on as residents fear for another outbreak. He said Chevron officials promised to return after their first visit to the site during the fire explosion, but they have forgotten the community’s plights.
“They invited me to Chevron office in Warri, Delta State, pleaded with me to beg our people not to raise alarm about the fire incident and they promised to come to our aid.
“Immediately after they put out the fire incident, they disappeared. We never see them again and most of the promises have not been fulfilled now.”
Mr. Eyinola appealed to Chevron to assist the community.
“Come and help us to fix bridges on our riverine community, we don’t want financial assistance, come and do concrete bridges for us in the community, the wood bridges being constructed by Niger Delta Development Company (NNDC) and Ondo State Oil Producing Communities (OSOPADEC) is killing our people.
“Our people are injured every day from the collapse of the wood bridges and injuries sustained.”
He appealed to Chevron to come to the aid of the community directly and not through government agencies.
Fire explosion ravages community for more than 90 days
On April 18, 2019, the residents of Oju Imole in Ilaje witnessed a deadly explosion from one of Chevron’s oil wells. The fire razed farmlands and crops and burned for more than three months.
The explosion contaminated the soil, farmland and water bodies. The environmental pollution it caused infected children with severe cough and catarrh.
According to a report by African Oil and Gas, Chevron resumed operation at the oil well in 2012; it initially stopped exploration in 2002 at the Omuro/Ojumole Oil field, after residents protested insecurity of their lives, property, and the impact to the environment.
In a statement dated April 25, 2019, and issued by Esimaje Brikinn, Chevron’s GM, Policy Government & Public Affairs, the oil firm said the fire incident happened at Ojumole Well No. 1 and described it as “an idle and plugged well with no flowline connected to it.”
On its website, Chevron classifies itself as one of the largest oil producers in Nigeria, operating under a joint-venture arrangement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) for the onshore and offshore assets in the Niger Delta region.
Although no official statement points to the exact cause of the fire, according to a report by ResearchCyber, oil spillage and explosion are mainly caused by equipment failure and deliberate acts, or human error.
Residents still live in fear
Despite containment of the fire from the explosion, investigations revealed that the people of Oju Imole are still afraid of potential dangers associated with an oil well on their land, food, and water.
When this reporter visited in August 2019, security operatives, mostly armed soldiers, were seen around the facilities – securing the area while what looked like on-going repairs took place at the site.
“We just don’t want to fight or raise any eyebrows for the community because we don’t know what they are still doing over there. No boat can move beyond the area, no one can go to the farm or fetch firewood in the community,” one of the youth in the community, who asked to be called Legend, said.
Painting an ugly situation of the community, Legend said the explosion caused massive danger to the community as people outside the community such as Igbokoda, Oktipupa, and other areas do not like to buy roasted fish or crayfish from the residents of Ojumole.
“Most of the women in the community cannot sell their fried fish, crayfish and plantain, because some of them believed it has been mixed with oil from the explosion.
“People at Igbokoda refused to come to the village to buy fish and farm produces as usual.
“Although to some extent, it is true because when we smoke the fish here in the community, most times, it ended up in flames.”
“It damaged our crops, killed our fish, destroyed the farmland and pollute our water including the rain which is our major source of drinking water.”
Contaminated fish and water
According to investigations, throughout the period of the explosion, the community experienced contaminated water and environmental pollution. Banji Aruikubami, 55, a farmer, who now drives a boat, said his experience from the fire explosion was like a nightmare for him and his people.
“It happened for months before Chevron and others came to our rescue to contain the fire. Our fishes float on water, dead; our farmland was destroyed by the inferno, even the air we breathe caused health implications.
“Presently I have no access to my farmland anymore and because I don’t want my family to go hungry, I have to settle for this boat and use it as a part-time to bring little to our table. We don’t know when we will be able to return to the farmland and our fishing locations as security men now guide everywhere.”
He claimed that the IOC destroyed the villagers’ farmland by dredging the area down to the oil well in order to quench the fire.
The explosion caused a health hazard on the children of the community, resulting in severe cough and catarrh.
One of the youth leaders in Oju Imole, Adewunmi Segun, said: “The fire started around Thursday, April 18th, 2019 and it took them about 3 months (referring to Chevron and other officials) before they finally quenched it.”
“During the period, most times when rain fell, it is ‘crude oil’ that dropped from the sky. It spoilt food, clothes, fish, and many things.
“Sometimes, as you can see this water, it is dead fish you will be seeing. When you smell any fish, it is crude oil you will be perceiving. If you put fish on fire to roast or fry, it will just go up in flames and burn.”
Mr Segun said most of the children in the community were affected by cough and catarrh during this period.
“We later realised that the rainwater we drink has been saturated with the flame from the fire explosion.”
Rainwater is Ojumole’s major source of drinking water, as the residents said they don’t trust the water tank provided by Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
Corroborating Mr Segun’s claims, Mrs Ogunne said the incident impacted on four of her six children.
“We just noticed frequent cough and catarrh. We applied the usual local medications but it did not work.”
“We have to quickly relocate our children to go stay with our family members in Igbokoda.”
Mr Ogunne said the people of the community later realised it was as a result of the rainwater which they drank during the period of the fire explosion.
The explosion had caused acid rain in the community.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, acid rain is any form of precipitation with acidic components, such as sulphuric or nitric acid, that fall to the ground from the atmosphere in wet or dry forms.
Apart from plants and the environment, acid rain affects how humans breathe posing risks of lung and respiratory problems and diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis (long-term), and pneumonia.
Chevron’s response to health implication during the inferno
Investigations revealed that knowing the magnitude of devastation and health hazard, Chevron invited some medical practitioners to the community to administer drugs on the children and other residents. They also took flour grains (garri) and other food items to the community including water (in pet pottles) as compensation during the fire explosion.
The people of Oju Imole said the response stopped after a few days.
“They did this because the women were stopped from fishing, farming and engaging in their daily businesses. No more fishing, farming, and villagers cannot pass through that part of waterways.
“They have mounted security checks around the area,” Mr Segun buttressed.
“They came about 5 times to check our people, give us treatment and drugs for catarrh and cough that small children were subjected to as a result of the oil well explosion.”
“Look at the drugs, I still have some of them here,” Mr Segun said showing some of the tablets administered during the incident.
Health practitioners told this reporter that the drugs mostly administered include Ibuprofen and Cetirizine. Ibuprofen is a tablet used in reducing hormones that cause inflammation and pain in the body while the Cetirizine tab is an antihistamine that reduces the natural chemical histamine in the body.
“They are aware we are in pain, we are in severe pains but they failed to realise that our pain is not physical,” Mrs Ogunne said.
Omuli Iwere, an Energy and environmental lawyer, said the focus should be on the Department for Petroleum Resources (DPR) whose primary responsibility is to inspect pipelines and sanction any irregularities with the IOC.
“DPR should establish what breached the pipeline to cause an explosion. It should be able to establish negligence, If it was from IOC, they should adequately compensate the community, if it was from the community, the damage has been done and it puts questions forward as to the level of security attached to the oil well.”
Mr Iwere said no matter what happened and who caused it, a community has suffered and should be adequately compensated.
Mike Karikpo, Programme Manager at Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, said there is a need for DPR and other relevant agencies to release environmental impact assessment report of the situation. He said this will show the implication of alkaline levels in the soil for farming and fishing and its resultant effect on human consumption.
Victor Anyaegbudike, External Communications Coordinator at Chevron, said his firm has had nothing to do with Oju Imole community for decades. He said Chevron left the community since 1998 and had abandoned the ‘empty’ Oil Well.
Mr. Anyaegbudike’s statement contradicts the belief of the community dwellers that the oil facility is still running secretly. When this reporter visited again in September 2019, security operatives occupied the areas, restricting the residents’ movement as well as commercial activities such as farming and fishing within the location of the oil well.
“When we heard about the fire incident, we approached the community as part of our CSR in the riverine areas, and not because of the vandalised pipeline,” the Chevron spokesperson said.
“We put the fire out and the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) took over from there. The DPR conducted an environmental pollution and other assessment impact and I cannot talk about that because it is not our duty to conduct an assessment.”
When asked about the drugs, medical assistance, and food items supplied to the community during the period, Mr. Anyaegbudike said it was part of the company’s CSR as “Chevron operates in nearby communities around Oju Imole”.
He pointed out that the issue of security and other information about Oju Imole oil well should be directed to the DPR which he claimed is now in charge of the facility.
Outcome of the impact assessment
Efforts to reach the DPR on the matter were unsuccessful.
Paul Osu, the Head of Public Relations at the DPR did not respond to calls and text messages to his mobile number.
When contacted, Jide Nana, the Chairman of the Ondo chapter of the Host Communities of Nigeria (Producing Oil and Gas), HOSTCOM, declined an interview with this reporter.
On three different occasions, he postponed a scheduled interview. Text messages sent to his mobile numbers were also not answered.