Effect of oil spillage

20.07.2022 Featured INVESTIGATION: In Nigeria, Refining Oil Costs More Than Human Lives (PART ONE)

Published 20th Jul, 2022

By Gabriel Ogunjobi

Rivers and Delta are two of the ten Nigerian oil-producing states categorized as the Niger Delta. Like in many instances, oil exploration and refineries have unleashed an environmental catastrophe on Nigeria’s south. This investigation dug into a year-long unresolved injustice of oil spills within the communities at the fence lines of the nation’s oil merchandise, highlighting endemic health impacts and economic sabotage

— Rivers, Nigeria


Friday Kpeloi sat quietly with folded arms as he listened to his two colleagues narrate how their land, water and atmosphere were contaminated by oil pollution. The two veteran activists of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were Lazarus Tamana and Pastor Christian Lekova Kpandei. The movement’s pioneer, Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, was hanged with eight other activists in 1995 by General Sani Abacha. They had sought justice for the people suffering the consequences of crude oil mining on their land.

In what was described as one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes, the Ogoni communities of Eleme, Gokana, Kana and Tia local government areas of Rivers State were flooded by oil in 1970, following the corrosion of the Trans-Niger pipelines owned by the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC). The cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster caused by the same international oil giant has become a done deal, but Ogoniland remains saturated with sticky residue of oil. The aquatic habitat is still polluted, vegetation has dried up and human lives are strangled by the effects of this unending depletion.

Successive spills from defective Shell pipelines between 2008 and 2009 led to another massive contamination in Bodo. The Ogoni people accused Shell of late responses to the two instances, leaving oil to pump into the creeks for over two months. While the legal battle instituted by a law firm, Leigh Day, against Shell before a High Court in London was ongoing, the oil giant agreed to a compensation package of £55m for 15,600 Nigerian fishermen and Bodo community. It was the first time compensation would be paid over an oil spill in Nigeria.

Jetty at the Bodo community, Rivers State. Aquatic life is impossible here because the freshwater has become contaminated by oil spills.
Jetty at the Bodo community, Rivers State. Aquatic life is impossible here because the freshwater has become contaminated by oil spills.

READ ALSO: Odimodi, Delta Community Where Oil Exploration Destroyed Fishing

Kpeloi was apprised of the unfolding events in his homeland in the United States, where he lived at the time, through articles, including some written by Saro Wiwa, and phone conversations with his kinsmen settled home. The news was not always pleasant. One particular triggering instance was when Saro Wiwa led the Ogoni people in a non-violent protest to demand a cleanup of their indigenous land. They declared Shell persona non grata and banished them across Ogoniland. But in 1995, nine of these activists were charged for incitement and sentenced to death by hanging.

The murder of the Ogoni nine ignited undying resolve to tackle the government and oil giants both home and abroad, ultimately garnering the interest of the United Nations for Ogoni cleanup. Indigenes abroad felt the urge to return home. Tamana, for example, returned from the UK and Kpeloi from the US to become frontline fighters. “But I am not back home to finally settle,” Kpeloi told me, insisting that he would return to the US whenever the struggle was over.

His hometown, Kegbara Dere, neighbouring Bodo, bears no sign of development apart from the tarred road that leads to the oil manifold station there. The locals are disconnected with the power grid because the transformer is non-functional. But this is the least of their problems. After the manifold station was blown up during the 1967 civil war, floods brought the still flowing oil beyond the manifold spill area to farms, acres of mangroves and the creeks that sustained most of the riverine area of Kegbara Dere

When oil was spilled from Bodo pipelines, which transports crude through the sea into the edge of Bonny Island for offshore refining, their shared waterfront was contaminated. The creek water still clots with oil in some places till this very moment.

The two communities are like Siamese twins: same breath, same death. For more than six decades, the people of these two communities have been firsthand victims of the impacts of oil contamination.

When some indigenes of Bodo were compensated, Kegbara Dere was exempted, and Kpeloi said he wouldn’t give up for life until that happened. But apart from this activism, he has become a victim of the story.

In late 2021, Kpeloi began to experience difficulty in breathing. “When the cough was getting severe, I decided to visit the hospital for a check-up in February,” said the activist, with a quaint English accent. He brought out a paper from his chest pocket and read the doctor’s diagnosis: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.”

As if to prove that he was struck with the illness in Nigeria, he tried to look for another piece of paper. The paper, as he would later find, was a sheet from the 263-page report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Ogoniland pollution in 2011.

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The report revealed that benzene, a known carcinogen, was detected in all air samples at concentrations ranging from 0.155 to 48.2 μg/m3. Approximately 10 percent of detected benzene concentrations in Ogoniland were higher than the concentrations WHO and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) report as corresponding to a 1 in 10,000 cancer risk. Many of the benzene concentrations detected in Ogoniland were higher than those being measured in more economically developed regions around the world.

According to a UNEP report, the Ogoni people should be placed on health monitoring,  but this is not happening yet.
According to a UNEP report, the Ogoni people should be placed on health monitoring, but this is not happening yet

In Kegbara Dere, for instance, there had been a series of spills from 1990 to 2009 at the Bomu manifold area owned by Shell. In April 2009, there was a fire following an oil spill on the Trans-Niger Pipeline, which transports over 120,000 barrels per day through Ogoniland. Although Shell claimed to have completed two remediation projects in the Bomu manifold area in the past, most of the manifold area was still covered in oily residues, soot and ash.

UNEP’s findings revealed that some 9,000 square metres of the manifold area is heavily polluted, the concentration of oil on the surface being above the saturation level and resulting in an oily sheen on pools of standing water and a strong oily smell.

The highest soil contaminations, at 63,600 mg/kg TPH, were found in the top 0.60 metres of a borehole in the most heavily contaminated area directly bordering the southernmost part of the manifold. This is extremely high and is far above the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN)’s intervention value of 5,000 mg/kg.

Seventy-year-old Kpeloi is not only nursing a terminal illness, he is bereaved, His younger brother died at the age of 68 of an undisclosed illness earlier this year. Yet, Kpeloi seemed optimistic about life and his fight for justice.

“There are cases that went on for seven, eight years before justice,” Kpeloi noted, before adding that their case was before the court in the Netherlands.”

Aside compensation in some quarters across Ogoniland, the agreement with the Shell companies included a cleanup of all polluted areas. “But as far as I am concerned, cleanup has not started. What they are doing is crude and ridiculous,” Tamana declared.

In 2015, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari released $1bn restoration fund for the pilot cleanup project.

Pastor Christian Lekova Kpandei, a decoder with Amnesty International, is on the front line of monitoring oil spills. He holds the oil corporations accountable for spills. In 2016, he had an experience that shook his conviction.

“Whilst I was tracking the patterns of the spills in the creeks, the army arrested and detained me for two weeks,” he remembered. “Since then, I’ve told myself there is no point dying for nothing while some people are in the cities enjoying the wealth. The striking questions are these: How do these people know where to burst? How do they transport the contents when the entire Ogoniland is militarised? They are aided by the military.”

Christian benefited from the paltry N600,000 compensation, but the remaining part of the bargain, which was restoring their farmlands, remain a hard nut. The creek at Bodo is polluted by oil directly flowing into it, killing the mangroves where fishes used to lay their reproductive eggs and crabs took shelter.

In January 2015, Shell admitted responsibility for the Bodo spills, pledging to compensate the people and cleanup Bodo Creek. Whilst Bodo residents have since received the compensation, cleanup has only been haphazardly done, this investigation can confirm. Apart from residents’ allegation that the contractors were using simple tools such as shovels to sandfill spill sites, satellite imagery views from 2006 to 2020 showed no signs of Bodo environmental restoration.

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The Geographic Information System (GIS) analyses showed that the coastal fringes of Bodo were still occupied by mangrove vegetation and appeared healthy, resembling a community of short water plants on the river surfaces as of 2006.

Credit: Mansir Muhammed

But the continued oil spills in the community disrupted this ecosystem. After the 2009 oil spill disaster in the area, the contaminants progressively weakened the integrity of the swamp vegetation. Bodo swamp in 2013 became less vegetative, losing its appearance of dense shrub-like assemblage. The combination of the spillage and the mangrove vegetation formed a black, brown and green texture on the surfaces, thereby compromising the health of the swamp ecosystem.

Credit: Mansir Muhammed

Credit: Mansir Muhammed

Credit: Mansir Muhammed

In 2020, sparse plants and trees rising from a dark coastal soil suggested that Bodo was still not completely rid of oil contaminants.

Credit: Mansir Muhammed

This reporter confirmed that apart from Bodo and Kegbara Dere, many other communities outside Nigeria’s Ogoniland are still battling the ripples of oil contamination. For example, all the pipe-borne water plants in Bori, Khana LGA, were shut down because of the suspicion of contamination.

Not only that, the wide stretch of the riverine area near an old oilfield in Goi was soaked in oil, with earth crust sinking in the blackish abyss. The oil residue rendered the entire land useless.


Despite the controversy dogging Ogoniland cleanup, the environmental pollution in Rivers is worsened by illegal oil bunkering in the state. The consequence of this is illegal artisanal refining of stolen oil, which in turn leads to the release of carbon black or soot into the ecosystem. From one creek to the other, flares envelope about 60 percent of the state’s landmass and turn a bright morning into an evening. The cloud is misty as if rain is imminent. When it rains, the water is not potable and often cameras acid rain.

In Port Harcourt especially, homes are rarely painted white these days because their walls are stained by the soot. The windows in urban settlements of Rumuodara and Rumuokoro in the capital city are coated by deposits of soot and the nostrils of the dwellers release black fluids whenever they sneeze.

Pius Dukor, a socio-political commentator based in the state’s capital, recalled how he lost his voice for more than seven days after inhaling the thick soot. The choking smoke, he said, seized his breath but luckily spared his life at the end.

Regina is one of the victims of the soot problem. The woman, who is in her mid-40s and hailed from Bodo, a 30-minute drive from Port Harcourt, recounted her stillbirth experience in 2013. She sells periwinkles for a living in the oil-rich state. But because Bodo shores had become toxic for aquatic creatures, Regina paddles a canoe far to Bonny to pick periwinkles where the water is relatively fresh.

Pregnant women like Regina were advised to keep off from the shores to reduce the health risks to their babies. “But I was always going to the shores to pick periwinkle, so I lost my baby,” she said. “I was feeling a sharp stomach pain that evening in 2013 and at the same time bleeding until I was rushed to the clinic.”

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UN experts have opined that the environmental restoration of Ogoniland might take at least 25 years, adding that all sources of ongoing contamination, including the artisanal refining, must be stopped before the cleanup of the creeks, sediments and mangroves can begin.

Lately, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike made efforts to stop oil bunkering. He demanded a comprehensive list of illegal refineries and their operators across the 23 LGAs in the state and also promised the disbursement of N20 million to each of the 23 local council chairmen ready to embark on a clampdown on the illegal refineries in their creeks.


Goi community now a shadow of its old self
Goi community now a shadow of its old self

In various quarters, there are conversations that artisanal refining, though illegal, is bridging the gap for the demands of petroleum products. Government, on the other hand, is pushing for the establishment of modular refineries to halt illegal refineries, an alternative to keep the oil market afloat. But these two positions are half stories. From the inception, refining oil in Nigeria has come at great cost, with the government losing billions of naira to rehabilitate ailing refineries. Also, oil production has far-reaching public health implications for the communities hosting the government-owned refineries or the pipelines.

For the first time in 43 years of operation, the NNPC published an audited financial report in 2020. In 2018 alone, the report revealed that the refineries incurred a total loss of N154 billion, with the Port Harcourt refineries alone losing N45.59 billion. But this huge loss was not even for rehabilitation but administrative maintenance, including paying workers’ salaries.

In 2021 alone, the NNPC spent N100 billion on the rehabilitation of the nation’s four refineries in 2021, yet no success. The PHRC is made up of two refineries a jetty for product import and export, located at Alesa Eleme, near Port Harcourt. The jetty is located 7.5km away from the refinery complex. In 1983, the Port Harcourt refinery produced 60,000 barrels per stream day (bpsd). Subsequently, a new 150,000 bpsd export refinery was built in 1988 and commissioned in 1989. Both oil refineries possess a combined capacity of 210,000 barrels per day, making PHRC the biggest oil refining company in Nigeria.

With the PHRC’s moribund state since 2019, the federal government has processed $98 million and N17.2 billion as partial payments for the ongoing rehabilitation of the Port Harcourt Refining Company, which will have cost a total of $1.559 billion upon completion by the end of 2024. The Bureau of Public Enterprise initially commenced plans to privatise the four refineries, partly because Dangote’s incoming refinery with 650,000 bpsd capacity may drive government out of oil business. The plan was later jettisoned on the request of the NNPC around March 2021.

For the communities on the fence lines of these Port Harcourt refineries, their consquences are the spilled oil cloaking farmlands and killing their farm yields. The wastewaters from the PHRC are often not properly disposed of, ultimately contaminating residents’ source of drinking water. For instance, at Ekerikana community, where the Port Harcourt Refinery discharges effluent into their river, the people complain that the underground water emits oil odour and becomes harmful when used domestically. It is not exactly different from the spill from the NNPC product pipeline that ran through Nisisioken Ogale in Eleme around 2005. The groundwater was found contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). The benzene concentration was at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) standard. MTBE is not a part of crude oil, but an additive added to refined products at the refinery. Its presence proved that the spill was not from the crude oil but that of a refined product, which the NNPC was directly responsible for.

In Kegbara Dere too, there had been a rupture in the 24-inch NNPC Bonny-to-Port Harcourt refinery trunk line which runs in a north-south direction, transporting crude oil from the Bonny terminal to the Port Harcourt refinery. UNEP estimated that the sediment in the creek had contaminated an area of over 20,000 square metres. The contamination in the immediate vicinity of the spill was never remediated as suggested by the soil sampling results.

Steve Trent, founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, stressed the need to transition to renewable energy, which is environment friendly, instead of over-reliance on fossil fuel.

He said, “the average wind farm’s capacity is double that of what it was in 2016, and solar and wind now provide the cheapest source of new power for 67% of the world.

“Renewables are ready now and strong state investment in accelerating the pace of renewable roll-out and boosting energy efficiency can see us end the fossil fuel age for good. Decisive action on climate is not a ‘cost’: it is an investment, not just in our future, but in our survival. Such investment would represent the greatest cost-saving of human history.”


NNPC oil pipelines inside Warri refinery
NNPC oil pipelines inside Warri refinery

The Warri refinery is in the sprawling neighbourhood of Ifiekporo and Ubeji communities. Its entrance is manned by soldiers conducting stop-over searches on vehicles entering any of the two communities on the fence line. Motorcycles and tricycles ride past gently. Within this refinery road, commuters give a furtive look at the pipelines that transport Nigeria’s crude content from other parts of the state where it is being explored to the tank farm, which is another five kilometres away from the refinery. From the tank farm, international and local oil companies ferry their vessels on the Atlantic front in the Delta offshore for refined oil.

Living on the fence line of a refinery in Nigeria is characterised by one thing in Delta: an untamed rage gravitating towards militancy. Apart from the greenery along the same paths with pipelines, what oil-rich Warri represents needs no telling. There is crude everywhere. The nose perceives its smell seeping from the nooks and crannies as if the whole place would be in flames if there was any spark. There are traces of oil in the Ifiekporo creeks, but it is difficult to trace the source on foot. Where is the smell oozing from? Certainly, not from the tank farm.

Flashback to the days of yore. Warri was the nerve of the state’s economy, dubbed as the oil city. Its prominence in Nigeria’s south is only surpassed by Ogoni’s Rivers State, bearing the same natural resource but in a larger quantity. The thing about Nigeria’s crude oil is that the moment it came, it overrode the nation’s existing priority. The country’s economy and the citizens are yet to recover from the effect. Nigeria tarnished agriculture, especially cocoa and palm oil farming, which was the economic mainstay, for the new bride (crude oil).

Warri had attracted the fortune of oil multinationals like Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) and the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company (WRPC). The youths flourished and the city was boisterous. Alas, a dangerous trend hit the oil city many years later.

Before noon on March 30, I arrived at the tank farm, still looking for the source of the oil smell. A friendly soldier ushered me to the sight of the berthed ships waiting for the vessels to be loaded. There was a tailback of tankers clogging the vicinity, but the soldier told me, “The traffic is still subtle this time”.

Tank farm at Ifiekporo
Tank farm at Ifiekporo

As I moved a few miles out of the tank farm, I caught the sight of some teenagers and young adults breezing in and out of the creeks that led to the waters. Their bodies were dripping black oil. Behind the shelters they came from on canoes with blue plastic barrels are swamps. Away from the waterside, they loaded the heavy barrels onto the truck beds.

Such bunkers litter the creeks around the oil refinery and the tank farms. Some other times, they tap directly into pipelines away from oil company facilities and connect the pipes to barges that are hidden in small creeks with mangrove forest cover. They pollute the water bodies while transporting stolen crude oil to the illegal refining sites where they ‘cook’ the oil and flare soots into the atmosphere.

Soot is a threat to public health, but no one in the community was willing to talk to me about the impacts of this oil theft.

Oil theft in Delta is an organised crime of sea pirates whose history dates back to the Warri crisis of 1997 and 2003. First, a crisis over land ownership and supremacy erupted in 1997. Militias fighting over the site of a local government headquarters went on a five-year rampage that unhinged the city. In 2003, the gun-toting non-state actors and the Nigerian navy clashed over illegal oil bunkering. The non-state actors used the waterways to transport arms into the country, intimidating oil workers on the sea and also hijacking their vessels. This was how Delta deteriorated over the years because of oil.

Oil multinationals such as Shell, Chevron, the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and its subsidiaries, other ancillaries and servicing companies now lay supine. And in the mid-2000s, they fled the city in droves. Shell initially downsized in the mid-2000s through SoFu (Securing our Future) initiatives and later shut down its operation in Warri, a development that threw the state into turmoil. Oil production was severed because flow stations were attacked by non-state gunmen.

Erhoike flow station of Kokori/Orogun oil bloc formerly under Shell’s OML 30
Erhoike flow station of Kokori/Orogun oil bloc formerly under Shell’s OML 30

Chevron also closed its onshore facilities, and then its main export terminal at Escravos. Both Shell and Chevron declared force majeure – an inability to fulfil their obligations due to events beyond their control.

Human Rights Watch concluded that the Warri crisis was a classic example of a “resource war” connected to oil bunkering around the Escravos River and other oil fields.

Substandard cleanup at Kokori palm oil plantation after an oil spill
Substandard cleanup at Kokori palm oil plantation after an oil spill

For Delta, the joy of oil was short lived. Oil activities shrank but the business of oil criminality grew rapidly and pollution exacerbated, owing to the unscrupulous activities of oil companies and oil theft such as the one I witnessed in Ifiekporo.

Nigeria’s oil production quota as approved by OPEC is pegged at about 1.8 million barrels per day, but in the last few years, the country has struggled between 1.3 and 1.4 million barrels per day. Nigeria lost over $2 billion to crude oil vandalism in 2020, according to a recent report by the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Kelvin of Kokori was a product of the criminality that emerged post-oil era in Delta. Some indigenes believe the man, originally Kelvin Oniarah, was merely fighting the cause of his marginalised people until he was arrested in 2013 after he and his colleagues kidnapped a prominent lawyer, Mike Ozekhome (SAN).

Apart from the militancy that heralded oil ventures in Delta, I know of another injustice done to the people of Kokori. Kokori land is flat and situated in the evergreen tropical forest zone, which is dominated by oil palm trees. The community also has over 20 oil wells, the source of the second best crude oil in the world by reason of its low sulphur content. In 1994, Kokori alone generated N68 billion for the nation. But this was a nightmare for farmers in the community because the crude oil boom spelt a doom for palm oil.

There was a massive oil spill at the Erhoike flow station of Kokori/Orogun oil bloc, formerly under Shell’s OML 30, in 2018.

“We now have to travel far to fish”, said a man visibly in his seventies, who refused to have his name in print.

His complaint was what Kejekpo Omonade, the executive director at Poverty Alleviation for the Poor Initiative (PAFPI), would later stress when he revealed that oil spill “had been happening in Kokori for many years but this was most devastating”.


Kokori Community, Delta State
Kokori Community, Delta State

The spill came from the square-shaped flare wall gushing into over four acres of land and killing ponds with the palm trees occupying space. The farmers were compensated for their loss while the oil company promised to restore the polluted land for continued farming. “Some people bought cars; some built houses from it,” says Omonade.

On the polluted farmland beside the flow station, four to five workers were seen scooping the oil on the earth’s crust. It was an extremely crude activity, done with simple tools like shovels and rakes.

One of them spoke to me on condition anonymity. He revealed that the stage they had reached was “mopping” up. He assured me that “we will complete the final stage of cleanup in a few days”.

My fixer jumped into the conversation to ask a question: “Can this land return to the Garden of Eden?” The worker answered in the affirmative, but with a coy smile of uncertainty.

With the level of spills and deforested farmlands yet on the ground, it will take a miracle for the expanse of land to be resuscitated in months, and not a few days as the worker mentioned.

Satellite Image: Kokori, Delta State.
Satellite Image: Kokori, Delta State. Image Credits: Mansir Muhammed

Due to oil spills, Kokori’s mangrove forest and trees have been systemically depleted over the years, a GIS investigation confirmed. As oil contaminants widened, the forest floor decreased. As of 2011, the forest floor was occupied by the rainforest trees. The first major change to the environment became apparent in 2017, when about four acres of land was deforested due to spills. However, after a major spill in 2018, the deforested land extended to nearly 10 acres in 2022.

In Nigeria, environmental restoration following oil spills has proven to be a hard nut to crack. Farmers have learnt from many experiences to put less hope on the possibility. They rather look for used land elsewhere if they still wish to continue their farming. As it is in Ogoniland, four years since the last oil spill at Kokori, the farmland is not only barren but cleanup is sub-standard and ineffective.


Before crude oil exploration in the 1960s, palm oil – like other cash crops – was lucrative in Nigeria, being the world’s largest producer with a global market share of 43 percent. When the crude oil fever struck, Malaysia and Indonesia surpassed Nigeria as the world’s largest palm oil producers. From 1966, both countries combined produced approximately 80 percent of the total global output. Today, Nigeria is the fifth largest palm oil producing country, with 1.5 percent or 1.03 million metric tonnes of the world’s total output, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

According to the PwC and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), if Nigeria had remained the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, the country would have been earning about $20 billion annually from cultivating and processing oil palm.

Mysteriously, the Nigerian palm oil industry has always been dominated by small-scale farm holders, which account for over 80 percent of local production, while established plantations account for less than 20 percent of the total market.

Though the production dwindles, Nigeria remains the largest consumer of palm oil in Africa, hence an inevitable dependence on importations. To resolve this menace, the CBN tried to encourage local production and manage foreign reserves by restricting 41 items, including palm oil. A duty charge of 35 percent was also put on crude palm oil (CPO).

Needless to say the financial policy might have worked if not for the counter-effects of oil spills pushing smallholder farmers out of business in Kokori

Many of the people who used to cultivate on the Kokori land before contamination migrated out of the village for city jobs to eke a living. Omonade resumed his soap and cosmetic factory business in a spacious flat on the periphery of Ughelli. By and large, Nigeria is losing the heritage of palm oil farming.

This report was funded under Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s fossil politics programme

Published 20th Jul, 2022

By Gabriel Ogunjobi


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