For about 39 days the OML29 Well 1 located in the creek by the Santa Barbara River in Nembe, Bayelsa State, Nigeria, belonging to AITEO Oil and Petroleum Company had spewed crude into the river and the Santa Barbara environment unabated. According to the locals the spill was observed on the 1st of November 2021; although AIETO claimed that the well blowout began on 5th November 2021. It continued till it was contained by the company on 8 December 2021.
Despite the discrepancy of the dates the well has spewed well over 400,000 barrels of crude into the environment according to estimates by an environment specialist Rick Steiner. In a letter to the Ijaw in Diaspora, Prof Steiner stated “that there is need for an urgent stopping of the wells as further spill will result in the total destruction of the Nembe environment and Rivers, thereby sacking the whole communities located around that environment and destroying their sources of livelihoods and welfare.” Various groups including, from civil society, media and concerned citizens decried the unchecked spill regularly for days before it was stopped.
Members of Oilwatch Nigeria expressed their displeasure over the lack of attention shown by the company towards the spill In a Statement signed by Emem Okon, a member of the Oilwatch Nigeria steering committee, “The oil spill at the Nembe creek OML29 wellhead is a very pathetic development. It is actually a call to action that all is not well in the Niger Delta region. We have got to get back to work, it is not yet Uhuru. The polluters don’t have the solution, so they should leave the oil in the soil. AIETO should commence the remediation process immediately we do not have to wait for UNEP report before cleaning up Nembe and all the affected areas. I urge the women to begin impact assessment immediately. Environmental impact, social, health livelihood, gender and human rights impacts assessment should be conducted.
Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) embarked on a site visit to monitor the level of the spill on 9th December 2021. AIETO had just stopped the crude oil/gas plume the previous day. HOMEF went with a team of eminent civil Society groups, a first class traditional ruler, academics and journalists for an assessment of the level of damage inflicted on the environment and on the communities directly impacted by the spill.The team was restricted by some overzealous security operatives keeping watch over the scene of devastation. The team had hoped that the polluting company would be happy to showcase the feat achieved after weeks of dithering. The team of CSOs, Media and traditional ruler were tossed back and forth for over two hours floating on the Santa Barbara River under the scotching sun, with the excuse that they had no permission from the company to access the site.
Director Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nnimmo Bassey who spoke after being denied access to the site stressed that there is need to look critically at the on-going issue surrounding the divestment of international oil companies from onshore fields. He noted that “the spill was an unmitigated disaster whose impact will last for generations. Apart from seeing the destruction caused by the spill, we saw that the oil companies have overbearing influence over the security agencies in the area. The worse aspect was being kept on the river without gaining access to the place they claimed to have stopped the spill. He further expressed his disappointment noting that the company should be happy to show to the world that it had stopped the spill which spilled over 400,000 barrels of crude oil in the ecosystem. We expect to see the company mobilizing to clean up the environment, carrying out a health audit and adequately compensating the people for the untold harm suffered. We call on the federal government to declare a state of environmental emergency in the area and in the entire state because Bayelsa state is the most polluted in the Niger Delta and Nigeria.”
Also the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Chima Williams stated that the environment and waterways should be protected, and that the company has the duty of care to protect their facilities. He stated that “AIETO has maintained that they have killed the spill and they were now flushing the well. Where is the flushed water going? It is still into the ecosystem. There is no facility in place to contain the flushed sediments. Our environment and water continues to be polluted. Our concern now is that there is no corroborating voice to state that the spills have been fully killed.” Concluding, he added, “We task the state and federal governments and the company to bring succour to the people of the area”
Annkio Briggs, the executive director of Agape is a Birthright, stated that “The claim that they have killed the spills is open to suspicion. Looking at the statement made by a staff of the company that the wellhead was sabotaged, it shows the game the company plays with the community. Blaming the community for the failure of the company’s equipment is totally unacceptable. As ecological and environmental experts have noted, this is a massive disaster and requires transparent action.”
The Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom, King Bubaraye Dakolo, Agada IV, who was part of the team, noted that the spill was the worst case that has happened with the high level of velocity pollution spilled around. He said in reaction to the disaster, “I hope it won’t take forever for the clean-up to begin. The entire state is now hungry because we depend on this side of the country for certain species of seafood. The entire economy of the state has been affected by the spill. Let the director of AIETO and those in charge come to the creek to see things first hand for themselves. Let them empathize with the people, rather than sending subordinates. Their presence will show they care about the plight to the people.”
The group further demanded that The President who doubles as the Minister of Petroleum should visit the location and order a comprehensive clean-up of the spill site and environs. All divestment and outright sales of oil wells and facilities must be made open to public hearing while the government should ensure that huge deposits against environmental incidents such as the present one are made before transference of ownership of the derelict facilities. Adequate compensation should be paid to victims for general and specific damages ensuring that no victim is left out. An immediate health audit should be carried out and community people should be given proper health care facilities and basic amenities such as pipe bone water and sanitation facilities. The minister of environment should visit the communities and take steps to ensure that there is a day to day monitoring of the quality of air and environment that the people are exposed to. A joint investigation visit of independent experts and stakeholders should be carried out to determine the cause of the incident.
Organisations that were part of the visit to the site included Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Environmental Rights Actions/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Stakeholders Democracy Network (SDN), Agape is a Birth Right, Stakeholder Alliance for Corporate Accountability (SACA), professors and the media amongst others.
Efforts to unravel the cause of the Santa Barbara oil spill disaster suffered another setback when Aiteo and security agents aborted a joint Inspection Visit (JIV) on 17th December 2021 by denying participation of a technical committee set up by the Bayelsa State on the flimsy reason that they had a journalist with them.