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Sunday Vanguard (Nigeria): Again, oil fire wreaks havoc in Warri

EMMA ARUBI Warri
Posted to the Web: Sunday, July 22, 2007

OIL spillage in the Niger-Delta coastal communities has been described as being at the root of the never ceasing frosty relationship between oil multinationals and their host communities in recent times with its attendant violence and blood-letting.

Sometimes the spill is traced to wanton acts of vandalisation from unknown persons while at other times it has been discovered to be due to the age of the pipes that have remained buried underground for donkey years.

Whatever is the cause of oil spill at any point, one danger that stares all in the face is the damage to the flora and fauna of the coastal communities not to mention the immediate loss of the means of livelihood of the riverine people-fishing and subsistence farming. It has been alleged that from the onset of the discovery of any leakage, communities usually do not alert  the oil companies for prompt action to check the spread so as to derive maximum benefit from the windfall even at their own risk.

It has also been discovered that some of these oil firms fail to take prompt action when informed of a spill due to fear of the youths from the communities or lack of the equipment to contain the spread.

Penultimate week, a storage tank at the Warri Refinery and Petrochemicals Company, WRPC, into which Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, pumps the highly inflammable condensate, a by-product of petrol into, collapsed and spilled its content into the tidal Ubeji community river from where it flowed freely to the neighbouring Ifie-Kporo, Ifie-Tie, Aja-Etan and Jallah rivers before it went up in flames, leaving in its trail close to a six kilometre stretch of burnt mangrove forest at low tide, more than 15 water-craft and loss of other fishing gears of the hapless Ubeji people who share common boundary with the refinery that flares gas 24 hours daily and discharges its effluents into the rivers and associated creeks.

How did the fire start? What has the WRPC done on the incident? How have the people been surviving without their only means of livelihood? What was the condition of the area before this fire outbreak and why have the youths of the communities not gone violent against WRPC up till now?

Sunday Vanguard investigations revealed that the WRPC has been discharging its oil waste and other dangerous effluents into the Ubeji river for some years now from where they flow freely into the Warri river and its adjoining creeks and communities to the knowledge of the company and both state and Federal Ministries of Environment. The Ubeji people of the Itsekiri ethnic nationality, being a peaceful group, have been tolerant and non-violent in the face of this perennial assault on them that clearly smacks of disregard to their collective health and well being.

Issue of pollution

Before the latest oil spill and fire disaster, Mr. Eyitemi Brown-Dibofu and Mr. Alex Dorti, representing 27 oil impacted Itsekiri communities, had taken the issue of pollution of the Warri river and its adjoining creeks by WRPC before the Federal Ministry of Environment and Petroleum at Abuja, compelling two former ministers, Dr. Edmound Dakoru and Chief (Mrs.) Helen Esuene, to visit the company in February 2007.

Their visit was quite revealing such that after inspecting the WRPC sludge pits and their discharge outlets, Dakoru stated that the situation was unacceptable, noting that something needed to be done urgently and, therefore, ensured that contract for the clean-up of the entire environment was awarded. And it was awarded for over N1.7b before he left office.

Indeed, due to non-release of fund to the contractor, the clean-up exercise meant to have commenced last month was stalled before the recent spill and fire thus compounding the whole problem.

WRPC is negligent because we are not violent—Hon. Griftson Omatsuli
Sunday Vanguard gathered that if the WRPC had responded swiftly when the leakage was first reported to them by the leaders of the community, the unfortunate incident would have been averted. Hon. Griftson Omatsuli, chairman of the six-man Ubeji community committee set up to liaise with the WRPC in the handling of the matter, told Sunday Vanguard that they noticed the spill some days before and duly reported to the company which did nothing about it, noting that on the day of the incident when they discovered that the rate of spill had increased, they sent people to the WRPC early in the morning to complain but no visible action was taken until the evening when the spilled condensate went up in flames.

This position was, however, disputed by sources from the office of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, the Federal Government agency responsible for matters relating to the management of spillages in the country. According to the source, the agency was promptly alerted of the leakage by the WRPC management and they moved into the company and immediately erected booms to contain the condensate from further flowing into the Ubeji creeks even as efforts were made to reach out to the fire service department of the Nigerian Ports Authority, SPDC, Nigerian Gas Company and other relevant agencies from within Warri to come and assist in putting out the attendant inferno.

But why would WRPC have delayed action until the situation got out of hand? Mr. Clement Erewa, the youth chairman of Ubeji community, told Sunday Vanguard that, that is how the firm treats them with disdain each time they report such incident. “We have always been lucky because our hands are clean. But the nation should know that one day, we might decide to take our destiny into our own hands. Afterall, all our people are not even employed there as staff except one or two casual contract security guard”, he stated.

Truly, a report by the Federal Ministry of Environment in Warri indicated that on December 8, 2003, the WRPC discharged their effluents at midnight into the community creeks and despite report from them and recommended clean-up by the ministry, the WRPC did nothing and the matter died a natural death with the community bearing the brunt. “No doubt, this is the kind of disregard, oppression, marginalization and evil perpetuated against the people of the region that results in restiveness and other acts of criminality as the people feel rejected and not part of the Nigerian project”, according to Mr. Gbubemi Ekengbuda, an Itsekiri activist. This time around, the quantity of oil spilled into the creeks was put at 12.56m3 (about 70 barrels) resulting  from the collapse of tank 62 with storage capacity of  31,800m3 although it has about 23,121m3 of SPDC condensate before the roof  of the tank caved in.

So what ignited the highly inflammable fuel?

Agreed that the storage tank 62 roof collapsed leading to the discharge of the product from the company premises and its subsequent flow into the surrounding community creeks,  the puzzle now is, how did it then catch fire without it affecting the WRPC and its facility as the inferno was strictly restricted within the community?

According to Mr. Edward O. Ekpoko, a Warri based lawyer who visited the scene, “being a highly inflammable product and given the fact that in our rural communities, our people are known to make fire and cook their food outside their homes, and especially in this case, with those close to the river bank, anything could have happened.” But NOSDRA and WRPC sources suspect sabotage by unscrupulous persons to discredit the WRPC who they claim have not been fair in their treatment of the community since inception as an opportunity to square up with them, pointing out that “the inferno was carefully planned, timed and executed and that, that accounts for why no life was lost except for burnt boats, fishing gears and degradation of the environment”.

Plausible as this argument may sound, it is arrant non-sense to Chief Emmanuel Jones, the Olutimeyin of Warri who resides at Ubeji. According to him, “how can a community decide to set fire on a free flowing fuel that may consume their own lives and properties. It is unthinkable to contemplate.

The fact that people did not die does not mean that fire was guarded. Any way who guarded it? Was the spill guarded? “This sabotage theory is a plot by the enemies of the community to shot-change us by looking for ways of not paying adequate compensation for the damages and loss suffered by us”, said Mone Godwin, a one-time youth leader in the community, added that “the polluter pay principle must apply in the case”.

We apologize for the spill —Dr. Ayangbile, MD WRPC

At a meeting between the Joint Military Task Force, JTF, in charge of security in the Niger Delta, WRPC and representatives of the Ubeji community on the spillage and what should be done to immediately pacify the people, the Managing Director of the WRPC, Dr. William Ayangbile, apologized to the community, admitted responsibility for the disaster and promised to send relief materials immediately to the community even as medical personnel were drafted to examine the people and administer drugs accordingly before other measure to provide succor and clean-up the area would be looked into.

Though relief has actually come their way, Omatsuli maintained that the materials were inadequate and expects it to be on a weekly basis since the people no longer go for their fishing activities again just as he said the medical examination carried out was haphazardly done while children drugs were administered on both old and young.

Relief also came their way from Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan when he visited the scene to commiserate with the people and doled out N2million as “immediate relief” just as the member representing the Warri Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Hon. Daniel Reyenieju, donated N250,000  with a promise to move the Lower House to mandate National Emergency Management Agency to send relief also.

While NOSDRA has compelled the WRPC to conduct a post spill assessment exercise through a joint investigation visit (JIV) with all the relevant stakeholders that took them deep into the burnt mangrove forest by boat and on foot  to assess  the extent of damage wreaked on the community and its bio-diversity, the hungry and angry victims of the fire disaster are waiting to be compensated.

NOSDRA sources told Sunday Vanguard that they had directed the WRPC to provide  logistics for the conduct of the damage assessment exercise to enable them come out with an acceptable recommendation for implementation and get the environment cleaned–up if the bio-diversity must be sustained for the people to continue with their normal lives.

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