Ogoniland needs world's biggest clean-up

Posted: 5 August 2011

The environmental restoration of Ogoniland, in Nigeria, could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken, a major report revealed this week.

It could take up to 30 years, with an initial fund of $1 billion, to carry out a thorough clean up exercise that would deal with contaminated drinking water, and bring land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves back to full, productive health.

The new assessment, carried out by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), shows that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have supposed.

Ogoniland, Niger Delta
Ogoniland, Niger Delta.

The assessment has been unprecedented. Over a 14-month period, the UNEP team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.

Detailed soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 local government sites, ranging in size from 1,300 square metres to 79 hectares.

Altogether more than 4,000 samples were analyzed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

Health dangers

Some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground and action to protect human health and reduce the risks to affected communities should occur without delay says UNEP’s Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland.

In at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened, according to the assessment that was released today.

In one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, in western Ogoniland, families are drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene - a known carcinogen - at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. The site is close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline.

Scientists found an 8 cm layer of refined oil floating on the groundwater which serves the wells. This was reportedly linked to an oil spill which occurred more than six years ago.

While the report provides clear operational recommendations for addressing the widespread oil pollution across Ogoniland, UNEP recommends that the contamination in Nisisioken Ogale warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts.

While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and bringing about a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take 25 to 30 years.

It will require modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, improved environmental monitoring and regulation and collaborative action between the government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry.

Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said the report provided the scientific basis on which a long overdue and concerted environmental restoration of Ogoniland, a kingdom in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, can begin.

“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,” he said.

He hoped it could break "The decades of deadlock" in the region and offer a blueprint for how the oil industry — and public regulatory authorities - might operate more responsibly in Africa'.

“The clean-up of Ogoniland will not only address a tragic legacy but also represents a major ecological restoration enterprise with potentially multiple positive effects ranging from bringing the various stakeholders together in a single concerted cause to achieving lasting improvements for the Ogoni people,” he said.

Billion dollar fund

Other findings in the report included a direct criticism of the Shell Petroleum Development Company’s failure to apply its own maintenance own procedures "creating public health and safety issues". It also says:

The impact of oil on mangrove vegetation has been disastrous. Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves — nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters - denuded of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick.

The five highest concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons detected in groundwater exceed 1 million micrograms per litre – compared to the Nigerian standard for groundwater of 600 micrograms..

When an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult. At some sites, a crust of ash and tar has been in place for several decades.

The surface water throughout the creeks in and surrounding Ogoniland contain hydrocarbons. Floating layers of oil vary from thick black oil to thin sheens.

Despite community concerns, the results show that fish consumption in Ogoniland, either of those caught locally or purchased from markets, was not posing a health risk.

The report says that fish tend to leave polluted areas in search of cleaner water. However, the fisheries sector is suffering due to the destruction of fish habitat and highly persistent contamination of many creeks. Where entrepreneurs have established fish farms for example their businesses have been ruined by an “ever-present” layer of floating oil.

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.

Artisanal refining (a practice whereby crude oil illegally obtained from oil industry operations is refined in primitive stills), is endangering lives and ultimately causing pockets of environmental devastation in Ogoniland and neighbouring areas.

Remote sensing revealed that in one local governmetn area, an increase in artisanal refining between 2007 and 2011 has been accompanied by a 10 oer cent loss of healthy mangrove cover – or over 307,380 square metres.

Efforts to boost the ability of naturally-occuring microbes to breakdown oil has not proven to be effective.
It had been thought that oil would not penetrate through the clay surface. However, in 49 cases UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 m.

Restoration plan

Through a combination of approaches, individual contaminated land areas in Ogoniland can be cleaned up within five years. But the restoration of heavily-impacted mangrove stands and swamplands will take up to 30 years.

However, the report says all sources of ongoing contamination must be brought to an end before the clean-up of the creeks, sediments and mangroves can begin.

It recommends establishing three new institutions in Nigeria to support a comprehensive environmental restoration exercise.

A new Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority would oversee the work during a Transition Phase which should begin as soon as possible.

Its activities should be funded by an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland, to be set up with an initial capital injection of US$1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government, to cover the first five years of the clean-up project.

An Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre, built in Ogoniland and supported by potentially hundreds of mini treatment centres, would treat contaminated soil and provide hundreds of job opportunities.

The report also recommends creating a Centre of Excellence in Environmental Restoration in Ogoniland to promote learning and benefit other communities impacted by oil contamination in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the world.

Reforms of environmental government regulation, monitoring and enforcement, and improved practices by the oil industry are also recommended in the report.

The Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland report is available online at: www.unep.org/nigeria