Aiteo, Nigerian regulators misreported Nembe oil spill that caused severe environmental damage

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The November 2021 oil spill in Nembe, Bayelsa State, started at least three days earlier than the owner of the well and the federal government publicly acknowledged, a PREMIUM TIMES investigation has found.

The spill, one of Nigeria’s worst in recent years, lasted more than a month and caused extensive environmental damage with more than a hundred thousand barrels of oil spewed into the environment, according to expert estimates.

Our review of the disaster has shown that oil and gas fumes from a wellhead operated by the Nigerian firm, Aiteo, caused large scale destruction of aquatic lives and damaged water bodies and farms. Residents have also reported health problems after the incident occurred.

Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company, the operator of the well said it “reported” the spill on November 5, and the Federal Ministry of Environment said the incident started November 5.

“Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company (AEEPCO), Operator of the NNPC /Aiteo Joint Venture of Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29 on Friday, 5 November 2021, reported a hydrocarbon well head leak in its Santa Barbara, Southwest field, in Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State,” the company said in a statement on November 22.

It added: “Immediately upon noticing the leak, Aiteo notified all relevant regulatory agencies and thereafter mobilized containment resources to limit impact on the environment. As required, Aiteo promptly called for a Joint Inspection Visit (JIV). Due to the high-pressure effusion, the JIV team could not reach the location and that inspection was aborted.”

The environment ministry, which is the regulatory ministry, was more categorical: “It can be recalled that the spill occurred on Nov. 5, 2021, in a form of fountain within the proximity of Opu Nembe Community at Well 1, Wellhead located at the Southern Field of Sant Barbara,” it said in a statement by Saghir el Mohammed, its press director, on November 23.

“Upon receipt of the report of the incident, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) and Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC), was set up,” the government added.

But PREMIUM TIMES has learned from witnesses and local officials that the blowout occurred days earlier, and the firm and the regulator were informed before the date they announced. They only began to take action on November 5.

The law requires that companies report and respond to spills within 24 hours of learning about them. Failure to do so attracts daily fines for the duration of the delay. Because the fines are dismal — N500,000 a day — activists say oil companies sometimes feel no urgency to respond until the situation attracts public attention.

They also said that while Aiteo merely said it “reported” the incident on November 5, the government’s outright declaration that the spill took place November 5 means it believed Aiteo had met the requirements of the law.

“The spill was observed by Aiteo surveillance team on 4th November and confirmed by Aiteo operations team @ about 730Hrs on 5th November, 2021. It was reported to the Commission on Friday 5th, which was within the 24-hour limit stipulated by law,” the Nigerian Upstream Regulatory Commission told PREMIUM TIMES in a message on Friday.

The director general of NOSDRA, Idris Musa, also told PREMIUM TIMES the spill began on November 4 and Aiteo reported on November 5. Aiteo did not respond to our calls and messages.

But several witnesses, including fishermen and security personnel who witnessed the start of the spill, said the incident occurred on November 1 — controverting both the operating firm, Aiteo, and the government.

“The spill started on November 1 and the community members reported to us on November 2, the same day we escalated it to NOSDRA,” said Mike Karikpo, the Director of Programmes at Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International.

Devastating Spill

Rotten, discoloured, and mired in sticky crude oil, the fish and crab carcasses Nengi James kept in an old refrigerator in his modest Bayelsa bungalow were causing an overpowering stench as he brought them out a late afternoon in December.

Sheens of oil on the Santa Barbara River, blocking oxygen exchange and killing aquatic lives.

Mr James, a veteran of the Niger Delta environmental and resource justice struggle at the height of the oil-rich region’s crisis, had picked the animals dead and washed up from parts of Nembe creeks and the Santa Barbara River. The waters are now blighted by sheens and patches of oil, darkened and grey-brown at different parts.

Oil swirls in the river water.

In addition to the animals, Mr James also collected polluted water samples using bottles aboard a boat sailing across the river, which meanders through the Delta area and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

A resident photographed taking a dead fish from the polluted water. Right to use granted by Nengi James, the owner.

The deaths of the aquatic lives followed the oil spill at the OML 29 Well 1 platform – an active but for long, a non-producing installation at Worikumakiri in the Santa Barbara River, Nembe area of Bayelsa State – operated by Nigeria’s largest domestic oil firm, Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company.

Nengi James' fish and crab carcasses, which he hopes to use in court to press for cleanup. Credit: Taiwo Adebayo/PT

Owned by billionaire businessman Benedict Peters, reported in the Pandora Papers to have allegedly bribed fugitive former Nigerian oil minister Alison Diezani-Madueke for favours, Aiteo acquired OML 29 and the Nembe Creek Trunk Line from Royal Dutch Shell in 2015 in a deal that Shell said was worth $1.7 billion. (Mr. Peters has denied bribery allegations.)

Despterate locals photographed paddling canoe on the polluted water, which they depend on for fishing and consumption. Right to use granted by Nengi James, the owner.

OML 29 stretches over an area of 983 square kilometres, producing 43 thousand barrels per day in 2014, and the Nembe Creeks Trunk Line is 100 kilometres long with a capacity of 600 thousand barrels per day, according to Shell. It is a “large” block and also contains “significant associated gas volumes,” the natural resources research and consultancy firm, Wood Mackenzie says.

In Nigeria, oil blocks are joint ventures, JVs, involving the state-owned NNPC and exploration and production companies like Shell, ExonMobil, Total and Chevron, who are the operators. There are also domestic players like Aiteo.

Aiteo and Shell are now locked in legal disputes initiated by the former, claiming the Dutch multinational made false claims about the ownership and conditions of the assets and seeking billions of dollars in damages.

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Due to the degraded conditions of oil and gas facilities amid a weak regulatory system and unwholesome corporate sustainability practices, as well as vandalism by oil thieves and militants, the Niger Delta has suffered debilitating effects of environmental pollution for decades.

This has fuelled widespread poverty and discontent in a region where rural populations, who barely benefit from its oil and gas wealth, depend on the environment for livelihood, mostly as fishers and farmers.

Photo: Nengi James' hydrocarbon polluted water samples, which he hopes to use in court to press for cleanup. Credit: Taiwo Adebayo/PT

Questionable Disclosure

Establishing the actual date the spill began is important for a number of reasons, activists and analysts say. First, it is a measure of demonstration of transparency by oil companies that are often accused of misreporting and downplaying spills, and by regulators that regularly face allegations of bias against local communities.

It also puts a spotlight on the well-acknowledged challenge of regulators having to largely rely on companies for information on oil pollution in the Niger Delta.

Residents of Nembe said for at least 38 days, beginning November 1, the Aiteo Santa Barbara wellhead relentlessly spewed crude oil and associated gas from two points into the creeks and Santa Barbara River, which serves more than 50 fishing communities in Nembe. As the wellhead spurted oil into the mangroves, tides transported the liquid to the land lying on the edges of the river, devastating farmlands.

 

“Everything is destroyed,” said Kellcy Ayebaemi, fisherman and youth leader for the Nembe riverine communities. “Cassava, plantain, palm trees – all have gone.”

Fishers and local officials in the area, including a security operative contracted to protect the wellhead at Worikumakiri, said the blowout happened on November 1.

“It was 4:30 AM on November 1 that the explosion happened,” Mr. Ayebaemi said. “We just heard ‘boom’.” He said the night became bright from the glow of the ferociously spitting wellhead and farther away smoke filled the air.

The witnesses said company officials visited the facility using a speed boat during the daytime on the same November 1 the wellhead exploded.

“But the company did nothing and only came back on November 5 to start containment and recovery of crude oil,” said Mr. Ayebaemi. “Normally, they should have acted immediately.”

“The truth is that the regulators are weak,” said Bassey Udo, founder of the business-focused website, Mediatracnet. “They depend on oil companies for information on incidents.”

“When it is offshore, the companies use their helicopter or speed boats to give the regulators access. So, companies only grant access to information they want the regulators to know,” said Mr Udo, who has reported the Nigerian oil industry for over 20 years.

And when the response did start on November 5, efforts were focused on containment of the crude oil flowing through the channel leading to the wellhead. The oil spurting far and into the mangroves could not be contained, witnesses said, explaining the widespread pollution of the water, the mangroves, and the surrounding land.

Written questions to Aiteo and phone calls to spokesperson Mathew Ndiana-Abasi were not answered. NUPRC did not also honour a request for comment made via written questions to spokesperson Paul Osuh.

When PREMIUM TIMES interviewed Mr James before regulatory officials disclosed the “cause” of the spill, he predicted that NOSDRA and NUPRC would blame sabotage by residents in order to absolve Aiteo of blame.

“NOSDRA has no boat or helicopter, companies take them to offshore sites. They cannot detect or determine anything on their own; so, the government will back Aiteo or any company. They will both say it is sabotage,” Mr James said, foretelling the position Nigerian regulators would take.

Eventually, officials from NOSDRA and NUPRC attributed the spill to sabotage following a controversial late December Joint Investigative Visit, JIV, which is a statutory probe involving regulators, operators, the state government, and the impacted communities.

Ismail Baba-Hammed and Adetoyibo Adeyemi, respectively officials of NOSDRA and NUPRC on the JIV, said only vandalism could have caused the blowout, arguing that the pressure from the oil well was not sufficient to cause the wellhead to blow. Citing engineers that helped Aiteo plug the wellhead, the former particularly said the wellhead casing was removed, not worn out, stressing sabotage.

The Nigerian military has blocked access to the malfunctioned wellhead and the surrounding impacted riverine communities, barring activists and journalists from the area. Only those sanctioned by the government or the company can visit the site.

Apart from the military at the Santa Barbara River area, Aiteo has a contracted private security outfit dedicated to the protection of the wellhead. One of the security operatives told PREMIUM TIMES, before the regulatory officials spoke, that the wellhead had not been vandalised and the explosion was sudden. PREMIUM TIMES could not independently confirm that.

History of Spills

Bayelsa State, which holds no real powers in Nigeria’s natural resource governance system that vests control of all oil and solid minerals in the federal government, faulted the regulators’ position.

Both parties barely cooperated during the JIV. An initial probe visit was marred after Bayelsa State insisted on including the press to “ensure transparency”, a position Aiteo officials opposed.

“This is terribly sad and unfortunate given the fact that NOSDRA and NUPRC are supposed to be regulators and as such should be unbiased and act at all times with integrity,” Biriyai Dambo, who is Bayelsa’s Commissioner for Justice and Attorney-General, as well as chair of the technical committee on the spill, said in a statement. “Finally, the Government of Bayelsa State completely rejects the JIV of Wednesday, December 22, 2021.”

“We are convinced that NOSDRA and NUPRC are biased and are playing a script in cahoots with AITEO.”

Faulting the procedure followed in arriving at the position that the spill was caused by vandalism, Mr Dambo said the components and accessories of the wellhead that were to be inspected had been removed and replaced, which amounted to tampering with and concealing the equipment and evidence.

Residents said two “minor” spills had happened from the same wellhead in 2018 and 2019. “Those ones happened without any response,” said Moses Ayarite, a Nembe youth leader.

Of the previous spills, Mr Dambo said requests by the affected communities to remediate their environment were rebuffed by Aiteo.

“We were shocked to note that on the day of this latest JIV, when asked about these previous incidents at the exact same wellhead, AITEO denied and NOSDRA kept silent,” he said. “During the course of the JIV, the behaviour and utterances of representatives of NOSDRA and NUPRC called into question their independence and neutrality.”

Mr Dambo maintained that the position of Bayelsa government is that the cause of the spill was equipment failure and that it would take all appropriate steps to pursue environmental justice for itself and the affected communities.

He said such redress would put an end to the perennial pollution of the environment through “reckless and irresponsible oilfield practice that is condoned by a weak or compromised regulatory system.”

“Fraudulent misrepresentations”

While the cause of the spill continues to stir controversy, what is clear is that the infrastructure was active but non-producing, and was not decommissioned either by Shell before divesting or Aiteo after acquisition.

“There are regulatory matters guiding assets that are not in use or non-producing. When they are not in use or not connected to pipelines but active, there is a risk of exposure to pressure. So, they need to be temporarily or permanently abandoned and decommissioned for safety but that did not happen in the case of Nembe and that was why the spill happened,” an oil engineer, who is familiar with the OML 29 facilities but sought not to be identified by name, said.

“Many times the multinationals divesting (from) assets in the Niger Delta are leaving near-dead, degraded assets for local businesses without a proper decommissioning programme and the regulatory system is too weak to ensure that is done either before divestment or after an acquisition to keep the environment and people safe.”

Experts worry about the state of the wellhead before the blowout especially given that Aiteo itself is in court demanding damages and claiming Shell had made “fraudulent misrepresentations” about the Nembe Creek Trunk Line, sold alongside OML 29. Aiteo says the trunkline was in a more degraded condition than advertised by Shell.

The oil engineer suggested that Aiteo may consider legal actions to push blame to Shell if it becomes apparent it would pay compensations to affected communities or bear heavy cleanup costs.

No preparedness for spill emergency

Besides its delayed reporting, Aiteo has also been criticised for its state of preparedness for spill emergencies.

The company only succeeded in late November in calling in Halliburton’s Boots and Coots to deal with the spill that was apparently beyond its capacity.

PREMIUM TIMES’ findings showed that although there is no law compelling companies to do so, many corporations have plans in place in anticipation of spill emergencies. One common way is to subscribe to Oil Spill Response Limited, OSRL, of Southampton in the United Kingdom, an industry-funded cooperative for spill preparedness and response.

OSRL has among its shareholders, called participant members, Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Petrobas, and Total, among others. According to information on its website, OSRL also allows “associate members” with a joining fee of 6,500 British pounds and annual subscription rates between 34,433 pounds and 275,466 pounds depending on the volume of production and number of sites.

OSRL promises a “ready” and “seamless” spill response. Its associate membership is open to non-shareholding firms and companies like Aiteo could subscribe. A list of its associate members includes Oriental Energy Resources Limited and Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas, two Nigerian companies among scores of others based in several countries.

“Aiteo does not have the technical capability to respond to the spill and also does not have a subscription with OSRL, which could have mobilised an immediate response action,” a senior regulatory official told PREMIUM TIMES, asking not to be identified by name. “That’s a problem.”

“The consequence of lacking preparedness by Aiteo was that it had to start looking for experts, negotiating contracts, thereby causing an avoidable delay in stopping the spill,” the official said.

In December 2011, Shell called in OSRL in response to the Bonga oil spill, also in Bayelsa State, and within seven days the spill was stopped.

The definite volume of crude oil spilled following the Aiteo Nembe blowout is not yet known but it is expected to be hundreds of thousands of barrels, activists have estimated. The Bonga spill of seven days, due to a cut in a hose in the course of transporting crude oil into a tanker, led to the discharge of an estimated 40 thousand barrels into the Atlantic Ocean, according to Environmental Justice Atlas.

“If any fish enters it, it is dead”

Promise Okubo, who was at Worikumakiri when the wellhead exploded, took a dive into the river, uncertain about what had happened, and swam to a side where he was rescued by Nigerian Navy personnel. Now, sick with breathing difficulties after he braved smokes, he has been visiting local medicine stores.

“But he requires proper testing to determine his true condition and for proper medication in a hospital,” said Mr Ayebaemi. Apart from Mr Okubo, other residents are reporting breathing difficulties. “People especially those who have remained in the area since the spill started are not breathing well and it is difficult for them to leave because this is where they have always known as home and where their survival lies.”

Methane, a greenhouse gas, is a main component of natural gas that the wellhead was spewing alongside crude oil for weeks. At high concentrations, methane exposure can lead to poisoning and and when inhaled cause less oxygen required to breathe, a chemist, Saheed Agboluaje, explained. Citing a medical research article, Mr Agboluaje further said methane inhalation can lead to acute respiratory conditions.

“This is why medical attention that involves testing is paramount,” Mr. Ayabaemi added, placing a demand on Aiteo, which he said had brought “relief materials” following a protest in early December when the wellhead was still spewing crude oil and gas. “But it is not worth it; what we want is to recover our livelihoods, not wait for handouts.”

“Any relief materials, bags of rice, we manage ourselves with them for the moment. When they finish, the hunger returns. We are just there.”

Interpreting a raging aged fisherwoman, whose net had drawn dead fishes, he said, “once you throw your net into the water, you cannot easily bring it out because of the impact of the crude oil. And if any fish enters it, it is dead or bloated with changed colour and a few moments it will die. We cannot do anything. We cannot fish.”

Mr. Agboluaje, the chemist, said hydrocarbon pollution on water makes oil cover the surface of the water, “thereby blocking oxygen exchange and causing death of fishes.”

Popular among aquatic animals in the area are periwinkles, tilapia, crabs, barracuda, schoolmaster snapper, and croaker locally called “broke marriage”.

“The oil wey dey there no small,” a paddler at Shell-kiri, another affected fishing community said, using Nigerian Pidgin commonly spoken in the area to mean, “the oil in this water is too much.” The paddler was trying to tell the residents on board the water they had depended on for consumption – in addition to fishing – had been contaminated

This was when PREMIUM TIMES visited and the spill had stopped but sheens of oil were seen on the water. In some areas, thicker patches, completely darkening the water, could be seen.

Augusta Moses, a Nembe resident, said rainwater has had “charcoal-like” colour since the spill. Residents of the affected riverine communities had always depended on rains to make the river water fresh and usable for consumption because during dry seasons the water could be very salty, residents said, concerned the hydrocarbon pollution of their environment may have affected precipitation.

Oil from the Niger Delta has been the main source of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and revenue since 1970s. But the region has suffered neglect and most of the rural communities, like those around Santa Barbara River where oil is actually produced, barely enjoy any human capital enhancement services, including potable water infrastructure, education and healthcare facilities.

A dilapidated block of classrooms at Shell-kiri, Santa Barbara River.

The neglect is just one example of Nigeria’s wider problem of poor governance and corruption. Environmental degradation due to oil exploration and production has left populations in the Niger Delta particularly vulnerable since they mostly depend on the environment for survival as fishers and farmers.

The consequences include the migration of young persons, who with limited education and skills, descend on urban centres like Port Harcourt or Yenagoa, and rely on petty jobs, and sometimes crime, for survival.

“When the environment is destroyed, you have poverty and definitely crimes,” said Mr James. “That is why you are hearing about sea piracy, kidnapping and other crimes going on in the riverine area. People cannot fish. what can they do? No excuse but there is reality.”

“Our pieces of evidence”

Mr James hinted at plans to pursue legal steps to get Aiteo to compensate victims and “massively” clean up the environment. “This matter has to be taken to court to ensure that our people get justice. But this is beyond just a Nembe matter, Bayelsa State Government has put together a technical committee, and Ijaw National Congress is working on it, some interest groups are also on it. The Senate must also look into it.”

Mr James, who is the second vice-president of Ijaw National Congress, an activist socio-cultural organisation, demanded an “an independent scientific investigation” of the Nembe spill to determine the impacts on “flora and fauna and the effects on our people.”

For Mr James and his Nembe people, the experience of the Ogoni people in the neighghouring Rivers State, who have suffered decades of environmental degradation due to the oil industry activity and endured struggles, including in courts, to gain compensations and have a process to cleanup their environment commence, is a lesson.

“The cleanup is happening in Ogoni land because of the seriousness of the Ogoni people and their organised processes. If you do not work for yourself, nobody will do it for you,” Mr James said.

Referring to the fish and crab carcasses and water samples with oil sediments at the bottom in bottles, he said, “these are our pieces of evidence, for the records, for legal actions to ensure justice for people.”

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