The discovery of crude oil deposits in any nation ordinarily calls for national celebration.
Such discovery raises the prospect of enhanced national income.
However, not many realise other dimensions to such fortune once exploration activities begin.
Hazards as crude oil spills are real and they do pose serious environmental problems whenever they occur.
In Nigeria, oil exploration activities started over five decades ago in the Niger Delta. They have thrown up a lot of challenges for the nation.
Statistics from the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) show that the Qua Iboe Oil Field alone, produces a substantial volume of the nation’s crude oil export.
Much as efforts have been made by government and stakeholders in the oil sector to minimise the associated hazards, several communities in Akwa Ibom still suffer major fallout as oil spillage.
Industry experts say that oil spillages, amongst other fallouts are inevitable, though they also acknowledge that there are ways and means to keep their occurrence at the barest minimum.
Two university dons, Dr Peter Nwilo and Dr O.T. Badejo, both of the University of Lagos, say that 50 per cent of oil spills in Nigeria are due to pipe corrosion, while sabotage accounts for 28 per cent.
Another 21 per cent, they add is due to oil production operations, while one per cent result from engineering drills, machine failure, poor control of oil wells and ship loading problems.
Environmentalists and scientists agree on the fact that spills do contaminate marine shorelines.There is localised ecological damage to shorelines and settlements.
Farmlands are destroyed, groundwater is polluted and aquatic life is endangered.
According to Nwilo, ‘’oil on water surface interferes with gaseous interchange and so lowers dissolved oxygen level”.
He explains further that the chemical action consequently reduces the life span of marine animals.
Nwilo expresses worry that “in the bid to clean up oil spills through the use of oil dispersants, serious toxic effects are exerted on plankton, thereby poisoning marine animals.
“This leads to food poisoning and loss of lives,’’ he says.
In Akwa Ibom, fishermen and other fish farmers within the Qua Iboe oil field are at the receiving end of frequent oil spills. They largely depend on the marine environment for their livelihood.
Ntekim Akpan, a fisherman in Ibeno, laments his plight as a result of oil spillage.
“We have been operating in the waters long before the discovery of oil in the Atlantic; the high sea is our farm. Rather than coexist with us, the oil companies want to wipe us out,” he alleges.
Akpan, claims that his livelihood has been threatened since oil production hazards have made fishing to be less lucrative.
“It is sad and unfortunate that each time an oil spillage occurs at the Qua Iboe oil field, the oil companies roll out their propaganda machinery, in order not to pay compensation for losses incurred by fishermen.
Sounding helpless, he says that “since we are not economically strong to fight for our rights, we have remained at the receiving end of the negative effect of oil activities.”
For Friday Thompson Udoyo, the leader of the Idim Ndua Esa Ekpene fishermen, oil spill is a major setback for fishermen.
He laments that each time it occurs, they withdraw from the sea to avoid catching contaminated fishes, which could pose a threat to public health.
Udoyo, who is also the President of the Ekpene Fishermen Multi Purpose Cooperative Society, says “fishermen are very uncomfortable with the frequency of oil spills.
He is worried that oil regulators seem to lack the capacity to cope with the incidents of spills at the Qua Iboe fields, and this, he maintains, has dampened the urge by communities to report such incidents.
Udoyo recalls the spill in 2003 from a tank farm in the Qua Iboe field, operated by a major oil firm adversely affected 2,600 of his members.
“My members were affected and our claims which stood at N4.5 million has yet to be settled. That of February 28, 2008 is still pending; then the incident of February 14, 2009; December 4, 2009 and March 24, this year,” he points out.
He urges that “something must be done to save fishermen from going out of business”.
The National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), was established in 2006, through the NOSDRA Act 15 (2006). It has a mandate to lead in the management oil spill incidents in the oil and gas sector of the economy.
Statistics of the agency indicate that spills indeed occurred on February 14, 2009; December 4, 2009 and March 24, 2010.
The NOSDRA Act requires that all spillers must report any incident within 24 hours or pay a fine of N500, 000 for each succeeding day of default.
It is, however, silent on oil spill compensation rates.
Oil industry analysts, activists and environmentalists are of the view that oil multinationals operating in the country are taking undue advantage of this seeming lapse in the law.
Chief Samingo Etukakpan, a labour activist and community leader in Eket, in southern Akwa Ibom, desires a law that will compel payment of appropriate compensations to oil spill victims.
He says: “Unless oil firms are compelled to pay compensation for damages to the environment and the economic losses suffered by fishermen, the trend of frequent spills will continue.
“These oil companies are exploiting the lapses in our laws to their advantage.”
Rev. Samuel Ayadi, who presides over the Artisan Fishermen Association of Nigeria in Akwa Ibom, emphasises that over 6,000 fishermen in the state depend on the Atlantic Ocean for their economic sustenance.
“The sea is our farm and they are operating in our farm; anytime there is oil spill, we suffer the impact the most. As I speak to you now, claims for compensation for oil spills in 2002 and 2003 are pending.
He decries the penchant of oil firms to engage the services of consultants who hold endless meetings that yield nothing tangible.
“They spend many years holding endless meetings in five-star hotels; what results will you expect from a consultant commissioned by a company responsible for the oil spill?” Ayadi wonders.
He appeals to the federal government and oil industry regulators to ensure that oil spills are controlled and minimised, to enable fishing business to survive.
The latest oil spill on March 24 into the Atlantic shoreline in Ibeno council area of Akwa Ibom is stirring up a controversy. None of the four oil firms operating offshore on the Akwa Ibom coastline is claiming responsibility for the discharges.
NOSDRA has mandated one of the firms to clean up the spill site while investigation continues over who caused it.
“We are awaiting the results of the investigation,” Mr Irvin Obot, NOSDRA’s zonal director says.
Analysts emphasise that the world over, there are permissible limits for oil spills in line with environmental legislations applicable to each country.
In their opinion, Nigeria cannot be an exception, hence all stakeholders should rise to the challenge of effectively managing oil spill incidents in the country.
This, they say will protect the environment as well as people’s means of livelihood.
They expect that where such incidents inevitably occur, appropriate compensation would be paid the victims, while the environment must be saved from degradation.
Nwakamma writes for NAN.