INVESTIGATION: How oil spill contaminates river, destroys livelihoods in Akwa Ibom community

The massive seaweed from the ExxonMobil pipeline’s at the riverbank of the Ibeno beach when the oil spilled.
The massive seaweed from the ExxonMobil pipeline’s at the riverbank of the Ibeno beach when the oil spilled.

On July 3, 2019, Nsopikpo Afia took his bundles of fishing net, put them on his canoe and left the Uton riverbank at Iwochang community in Ibeno Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State to fish in the Qua Iboe.

Qua Iboe is a river that rises near Umuahia in Abia State and flows in a southeastern direction through Ibeno, which is one of the largest fishing settlements on the Nigerian coast.

In the middle of the river, Mr Afia threw his nets with the hope of catching as many fish as possible. After some minutes, he brought out his nets and was disappointed.

The nets only caught a few fish. He became sad. But that was not the worse incident. His nets had been soaked with crude oil and seaweed clung on the nets as a result of oil operations in the river area. He saw the spilt oil on the water but he was unaware it could have a devastating impact on his nets.

Oil Spills

Oil spill refers to the release of liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment both on land and the marine ecosystem, mainly due to operational failures.

Oil spills include releases of crude oil from offshore platforms, drilling rigs and wells, as well as spills of refined petroleum products (such as gasoline, diesel) and their by-products. Oil spills have contaminated many rivers, streams, and soils in the Niger Delta, a region made up of oil-producing states including Akwa Ibom.

Oil spills raise concerns about seafood safety, endanger fish hatcheries in coastal water and contaminate commercially valuable fish flesh. Oil exploration has over the years impacted negatively on the physical environment of the oil-bearing communities and has increased the rate of environmental degradation and perpetuated food insecurity as a result of the death of fish.

The fisheries sector in Nigeria supports about 7 million Nigerians, of whom 80 per cent are from the Niger Delta. The region’s small-scale fish farmers supply a large amount of the country’s domestic fish production annually.

The sector contributes about 6 per cent to the nation’s economy while the country depends on imported fish to meet domestic demand, with total fish imports amounting to about $1.2 billion and exports valued at $284 million in 2013.

Currently, almost 9 million tonnes of fish are produced domestically, while the annual demand for fish is around 2.7 billion tonnes.

Mr Afia said the oil spill in Ibeno has affected his livelihood.

“It’s been three months now,” he said last November. “I have not gone back into the river to resume fishing. I have been suffering and begging relatives and friends for money to feed myself and family. I am also looking for money to get new nets.”

“Anytime there is an oil spill — usually thick — it will cover our nets and render them useless,” said Mr Afia. “We don’t have fish anymore. The oil does not allow our nets to catch fish.”

Distraught

Mr Afia’s bundle of nets were on the floor in the riverbank with the hope the sun would dry them and remove the crude oil. Weeks passed and no possibility the nets would still be able to catch fish.

On a day in October, he sat on his long canoe looking confused. His fishing partner stood behind him with his head down. He was worried that in a few months to come, they still would not get new nets to go back to the river to fish.

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ExxonMobil has been operating in the Qua Iboe area for more than 50 years. It has numerous offshore fields in the Bright of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria, east of the Oso field.

The crude, from fields 20 to 40 miles offshore from Nigeria’s South-astern region, are brought to shore via a seabed pipeline system to the Qua Iboe Terminal (QIT).

QIT is located on the eastern side of the Qua Iboe river estuary and contains nine crude oil storage tanks with a total capacity of 4.5 million barrels. ExxonMobil, as a field operator, holds 40 per cent interest in the oil production while the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) owns the remaining 60 per cent.

First spill

Ibeno community leaders said Ibeno first experienced oil spill in 1998 and it was immediately cleaned by the oil corporation but the company found it difficult to clean subsequent oil spills immediately they occurred until they caused damages.

Sunday Kwesi, a Ghanaian, arrived Akwa Ibom in 2004. He had always loved fishing. His grandfather and father were fishermen. He decided to settle in Ibeno, where he became a commercial fisherman. He said he was successful in fishing but started experiencing challenges whenever an oil spill occurs, contaminating the river.

“Because of the oil spill, my thick nets only last only for two years. But if not touched by oil, nets can stay for 20 years. But because of the spill, it does not last longer again,” he lamented on a bright day in October.

Mr Kwesi’s nets were also on the riverbank hoping the sun would dry the oil. He said he feared that the nets would not be able to catch fish anymore even if they dry. Like Mr Afia, Mr Kwesi abandoned fishing for weeks due to the oil spill. He wanted to buy new nets but he could not afford it.

READ ALSO: Nigeria spent N722.3 billion on fuel subsidy in 2018 – NEITI Report

“One bundle of the net is N1 million and I need like 20 bundles for commercial fishing,” he said.

He used to get enough fish in the river but since the oil spill started, things had gotten worse. As a result, Mr Kwesi started travelling on the water to neighbouring countries to fish. He has two big canoes. On the canoes are flags of countries he has travelled to fish.

“I go to Cameroon, Liberia, and Ghana to fish. Now there is a serious oil spill problem. How will I get money to take care of my family? I need help,” he said bitterly.

Contaminated beach

Ibeno has a beach, where people go swimming and have fun. People from various communities and towns go to the beach to enjoy themselves. But the beach has been contaminated by the spill. Community leaders have stopped people from swimming on the beach due to the danger.

The beach is one of the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean along the shorelines of Ibeno. It is one of the longest sand beaches in West Africa and a tourist attraction.

“When oil spills, our beach suffers from seaweed everywhere and small particles of oil,” said James Eshiet, Ibeno Youth President. “That is where many people enjoy themselves. They go there to swim but now we do not go near the beach.”

In June 2010, there was a report of an oil spill on the beach. In September 2019, community youth also reported an oil spill on the beach. When the reporter visited the beach in October 2019, it was empty. Stalls at the riverbank were closed due to low patronage. The bank of the beach was filled with seaweeds.

The reporter was informed that an oil spill occurred two weeks back (mid-September) that contaminated the beach. Mr Eshiet said ExxonMobil changed its pipes, which led to the oil spilling with seaweeds and thick oil particles all over the beach and its bank.

“The seaweed is as a result of the production because it clings to their pipes underneath the water,” said Gabriel Emmanuel, the youth president of Iwo-okpom, one of the communities in Ibeno. “When the spilled oil and seaweed come to our shore, we tell them that this is what they have caused but they deny it.”

ExxonMobil spokesperson, Ogechukwu Udeagha, denied oil ever spilling in Ibeno, describing it as “speculation and non-specific event”.

“We have no evidence of oil spill around that period. Changing pipelines is what we always do. A government agency can confirm the oil spill. NOSDRA can confirm this and tell us it was not cleaned and it caused damages,” he said.

Scientists Confirm Spill

The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) is a federal agency that embarks on Joint Investigation Visits (JIV), ensures the remediation of impacted oil spill sites and monitors oil spill drill exercises and facilities inspection.

This reporter contacted two NOSDRA environmental scientists at the Uyo office, who both confirmed there were separate oil spills and massive seaweeds reported within the period specified.

“I was present and saw seaweed and little oil. Seaweeds were on the shore. There was not much oil. We took samples of the seaweeds to run a test in the lab to see if there is a sign of anything but the agency did not give approval or funding to run the test,” a NOSDRA scientist in the state who identified himself as Gideon said.

A senior environmental scientist and NOSDRA’s then Zonal Director at the Uyo Field Office, Irvin Obot, also confirmed ‘negligible’ oil spill and massive seaweed that engulfed the beach shore.

“There was little oil though negligible but there were massive seaweeds. The oiling was very negligible,” Mr Obot who was later transferred to Abuja, said. “Seaweed or sea vegetables are forms of algae that grow in the sea. Seaweed usually clings to the pipelines in the water. When there is an oil spill, seaweed leaves the pipelines to the shorelines or riverbank.”

Mr Eshiet said the last cleaning done by ExxonMobil was in 2012. “Since then, we have had serious oil spills but the clean up had never been done. They have chemicals they pour inside the river so that the oil spill will not reach here [riverbank] but sometimes it does not work.”

He said letters have been written to ExxonMobil to always clean up spills when they occur “but they fail to respond.”

The negligence from the oil corporations led to a protest by the angry Ibeno youth in 2017 demanding the oil company to clean up the spilled sites. The company, however, said the spills did not emanate from their productions.

Numerous challenges

Apart from the effects of the oil spill on fish production and the contamination of the beach, other challenges affect the communities and they claim the oil company has failed to help them solve them.

Akpanam Bassey, a fisherman, said they are dying from air pollution due to the oil operations.

“We don’t have good water. We don’t live up to 80 years. People now die at the age of 40, 50 and 60 years,” he lamented. “We cry to the federal government to assist us and talk to ExxonMobil to control the oil spill.”

“If you’re in Ibeno and you decide to stay inside your house, you will feel and hear vibrations all over the place. We are supposed to be benefiting from these people to save our lives but the money for the development of Ibeno is being taken elsewhere,” Mr Eshiet said.

He said the rainwater people use is not safe for drinking due to the flare.

“When it rains and you put your bucket outside, the colour of the water will be black. You keep it for some days and when you filter it, you see oil particles underneath the bucket. It is God that is saving us,” Gabriel Emmanuel, the youth president of Iwo Okpon community said.

There was initially potable water to drink in the community but since the oil spill started, they no longer get potable water anymore. They have protested countless times and nothing is forthcoming.

“When the youth stage a protest to the office of ExxonMobil in Ibeno, they send trucks full of soldiers to scare them away. They get harassed and beaten for protesting against the operations of the oil company that has destroyed their livelihood,” Ani Effiong, youth president of Inua Eyet Ikot lamented.

Mr Effiong asked the government to look into what they are going through. “What we are inhaling, drinking and eating daily is capable of giving typhoid, malaria, among other illnesses. Children unborn will feel the impact of the negativity.”

They are not happy that ExxonMobil is not cooperative in addressing the problem of the oil spill in Ibeno. They are also sad that the oil firm does not allow people to use its hospital, he said.

“Before we used to go to the ExxonMobil hospital for treatment but we were stopped,” said Bassey Etem, the treasurer of Ibeno Youth Forum. “There are not enough doctors in our hospital. We do check-ups once every month and once every two months to detect any sickness. The flare and chemicals are too much. We cannot even enjoy anything here.”

But Mr Udeagha disagreed with Mr Ibeno who claimed they do not get support from the oil firm.

“We have done ‘things’ for Ibeno. We provide them with free electricity. These are the things that people do not talk about. They are always complaining,” the oil company’s spokesperson said.

For Mr Afia, what he wants from the oil firm is a replacement of his fishing net.

“We have not been feeling the dividends of our oil from the federal government and ExxonMobil,” said Afia. “The government and ExxonMobil should provide us with nets because the oil spill contaminated and spoiled them.”



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