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DEIBIRI-BATAN is a rustic riverine Ijaw Community in the controversial Warri South-West Local Government Area of Nigeria's Delta State, one of the key oil and gas-producing states. The local people say they are still being disturbed by a soft smooth shiny substance, and a thick, soft, wet mud that have now become a common feature of their environment. For the environmental rights activists who appear to know better, these novel features are crude oil sheen and sludge.
These uninvited visitors are visible on the Batan River and surrounding creeks. One community person told this writer on Monday, May 14, 2007 that these stranger elements, that do not appear to be in a hurry to go, invaded Diebiri-Batan, some time in the year 2000.
Testimonies of the people tend to show that a major oil spill occurred in Batan flow station, an oil facility owned by Anglo-Dutch oil giants, Shell. The oil spill reportedly caused extensive ecological damage in the community and led to loss of livelihood by the local people. The oil spill allegedly occurred in July 2000.
Sine then, this Ijaw Community and Shell, do not seem to be best of friends. They are living in mutual suspicion. It looks as if since the July 2000 incident, oil spill was becoming a common feature of the community.
With the outcry over the Batan flow station crisis yet to die down, another major spill occurred at the oil company’s Batan delivery line. This time, it was on Sunday, October 20, 2002. The actual cause of the spill, going by divers’ claim, was a “slack” in two bolts and nuts used in the eight-inch tie-in manifold locked under the water at the delivery line.
The unfortunate incident which allegedly occurred as a result of equipment failure, reportedly resulted in the spillage of large quantity of crude oil into the Batan River and the surrounding creeks. The rural people are also alleging that the spills have endangered their aquatic life and disrupted their fishing activities.
This reporter however,gathered that Batan River, which serves as the source of drinking water for the local people, and the adjoining creeks in which the community carry out their fishing activities have been polluted by the spills. Their fishponds, fishing nets, traps and hooks were destroyed. But the oil spill was not limited to Diebiri-Batan. They claimed that it spread through rivers and creeks to neighbouring communities such as Ajulu, Ewerigbene and Kumusi.
Community people are still complaining alound about the economic hardship they have been plunged into by the spill. They are alleging recession in their fishing business, lack of “good” drinking water in the affected areas and the refusal of the oil company concerned, to supply them with relief materials to cushion the economic hardship they are facing due to the spill.
But Shell is not eager to accept responsibility for the spill. The Western Division of the oil giants is claiming that the Ijaw Community subjected their staff who were there to see things for themselves to “gruesome ordeal, duress and manhandling”.
The official position of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC-West) on the problem is: “We strongly suspect that the conduct of the people was a diversionary tactics to cover up the nefarious acts of some elements in the community who may have caused the oil spillage by tampering with the subject manifold”
Shell is claiming that the oil spill was an act of third party interference. This, in the language of the oil company means sabotage. According to the oil company, “the inspection report of the diver who inspected the leak point leaves no reasonable person in doubt that the leakage occurred due to unauthorised tampering by unknown persons with two bolts and nuts on the flange of the manifold.”
Continuing, the company added, “we have reasonable grounds to suspect that some members of the community might be the culprits and the suspicion has been reported to the appropriate authorities for necessary action.”
For those very familiar with Shell’s tactics in matters like this, blaming third party interference has always been their escape from paying adequate compensation. They claimed that “adequate compensation” for the Batan oil spill would run into hundreds of million naira.
The company’s charge of sabotage does not seem to be tilting the balance in its favour. Findings by Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a renowned non-governmental organisation in the field of environment, tend to show that the spill was caused by system failure. The group wants Shell to stop passing the buck, claiming that what was needed was immediate and thorough cleaning of the affected areas.
For Era, the oil company owes the Batan community an obligation of provisiding them with relief materials and adequate compensation; replacing all aged oil facilities in the community and stopping the alleged use of military personnel to harass local community people.
In the meantime, one of the frontline community leaders, Alex Ebi, who alleged that Shell was using armed security operatives to repress the rural community, is insisting that the community is not responsible for the spillage.
“Diebiri-Batan is a predominantly fishing community. Some of our people are also engaged in subsistence farming”, he said, pointing out that the oil company started oil exploration and exploitation in the community in 1963. Shell however, has 25 oil wells in the locality and a flow station, the Batan Flow Station.
Gong by ERA’s findings in the community, Shell appears to have recorded series of oil spills from their facility since they started operations in the community in 1963. Crude oil is being transported from Batan flow station to Forcados export terminal. In 1990 and 1998, there were alleged pipeline rupture which spewed considerable quantity of crude into the surrounding environment.
Although the cause of all the major spills in the area is in dispute, what does not appear to be in dispute is the fact that there is an extensive ecological damage in the community. While the people are insisting that both the July 2000 and the October 20,2002 spills were caused by the oil company’s equipment failure, Shell is holding on to their charge of sabotage.
As the company has refused to accept responsibility, the Diebiri-Batan Community will, in the months ahead, continue to be terrorised by crude oil sheen and sludge. Their fishponds and farmlands are still being polluted by the spill. ENDS

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