/ 15 June 2010

Far from US Gulf, Nigerian thieves mop up oil spills

Using two large yellow tubes to funnel polluted water into his small wooden boat, Nigerian teenager Daniel Muukor helps to “mop up” the latest oil spill in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

But Muukor is not part of Nigeria’s federal response effort to contain the spill — the 15-year-old is stealing the oil to sell on the black market.

The only evidence of a clean-up effort in the creeks of Bodo is an abandoned orange containment boom the length of two canoes floating nearby, which residents say was placed there by oil company workers, not the government.

No robotic submarines to contain the spill, no high-profile government investigation into the cause, and no compensation handed out to affected communities.

This is Nigeria, not the United States.

Daily news coverage of the US government’s all-out fight to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the country’s largest environmental disaster, only reminds Nigerians of the type of arsenal rich countries have at their disposal.

“In the US, they have a response from the government. But in Nigeria, there is no response,” said John Nyiedah, assistant secretary for the town’s main youth group.

“They keep saying they will come today, they will come tomorrow. But they never come.”

Millions of gallons of oil have poured in the US Gulf since an April 20 offshore rig blast killed 11 workers and blew out a BP well.

The spill has soiled 190km of US coastline, imperilled multibillion-dollar fishing and tourism industries and killed birds, sea turtles and dolphins.

President Barack Obama has pushed BP to compensate spill victims, while US lawmakers have accused the firm of taking risky shortcuts on its blown-out well.

Oil spills
In the Niger Delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry and thousands of kilometres away from the US Gulf crisis, oil spills have been left to fester for decades, polluting the air, soil, and water of impoverished communities.

No one knows for sure how much oil has seeped into the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta, but environmentalists say the ecological impact over time in one of the world’s largest wetlands is much worse than in the United States.

“The oil spills in the Niger Delta are more than what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Alagoa Morris, field monitor for Environmental Rights Action in Bayelsa state.

“Some Nigerian spill sites are allowed to spew crude oil into the environment for up to two months.”

But President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration disagrees, saying its oil spills are much smaller than in the United States and are usually clamped within a few days.

“The kind of situation we have in the Gulf of Mexico, we haven’t had that in 10 years in Nigeria,” Environment Minister John Odey said.

“It is a fallacy for some people to compare the spill in the Gulf of Mexico to what happens here.”

Oil firms say many recent spills were caused by militant attacks or saboteurs tapping into pipelines to steal crude.

The largest operator in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell, says it cleans up oil spills as quickly as possible whatever their cause but says it is sometimes delayed by security concerns or because communities deny access.

The Anglo-Dutch giant said its joint venture in Nigeria lost almost 14 000 tonnes of oil through spills last year alone, largely because of attacks on its facilities.

Unemployed fishermen
Bodo, located just outside Nigeria’s oil hub Port Harcourt, is one of several oil communities in the Niger Delta that has been devastated by years of oil spills.

At the town’s creeks, children emerge from playing in the water with beads of oil stuck to their skin, while a handful of unemployed fishermen stare at the dead black-stained plants that line the shore.

“Two years ago, I was fishing everyday but that stopped because of the spillage of oil,” said Innocent Tonwee, a 46-year-old father of four. “We’re totally frustrated. I don’t know what to do.”

Some residents say they have no choice but to turn to the lucrative but illegal trade of crude oil theft, known locally as bunkering, to make a living.

“There are no fish to catch. I have no choice. This is my living now,” Muukor said, dressed in oil-stained plaid shorts, his yellow T-shirt tied around his head to block the sun.

The teenager can make up to 10 000 naira ($67) a day collecting polluted oil, a decent wage compared to most of Nigeria’s 140-million people who make less than $2 a day.

Muukor will take his oil-filled canoe to one of the many illegal refining sites, easily found by the smoke clouds billowing from the mangroves throughout the creeks.

There, the oil will be boiled and purified to be sold for cooking or to fuel generators.

Bunkering has also helped fund criminality in the Niger Delta, where kidnappings for ransom and carjacking are common.

Unrest in the region has kept the Opec member from pumping much above two thirds of its three million barrels per day oil capacity, costing sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest economy billions of dollars in lost revenue each year. – Reuters