Claims by oil giant Shell that it has cleaned up heavily polluted areas of the Niger Delta are blatantly false, Amnesty International and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) said in a new report published today.
Clean it up: Shell's false claims about oil spills in the Niger Delta documents ongoing contamination at four oil spill sites that Shell said it had cleaned up years ago. The report is being published to mark the 20th anniversary of the execution, on 10 November 1995, of the environmental activist and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned tirelessly against the damage caused by the oil industry in the Niger Delta.
“By inadequately cleaning up the pollution from its pipelines and wells, Shell is leaving thousands of women, men and children exposed to contaminated land, water and air, in some cases for years or even decades,” said Mark Dummett, Business and Human Rights researcher at Amnesty International.
“Oil spills have a devastating impact on the fields, forests and fisheries that the people of the Niger Delta depend on for their food and livelihood. Anyone who visits these spill sites can see and smell for themselves how the pollution has spread across the land.”
The report also documents the failure of the Nigerian government to regulate the oil industry. Its watchdog, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA)is under-resourced and continues to certify areas as clean that are visibly polluted with crude oil.
“As people in Nigeria and around the world remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni leaders who were executed in 1995, Shell and the government of Nigeria cannot ignore the terrible legacy of the oil industry in the Niger Delta. For many people of the region, oil has brought nothing but misery,” said Stevyn Obodoekwe, CEHRD’s Director of Programmes.
“The quality of life of people living surrounded by oil fumes, oil encrusted soil and rivers awash with crude oil is appalling, and has been for decades.”
Investigation finds visible pollution at sites Shell says it cleaned
The Niger Delta is the biggest oil-producing region in Africa. The largest international oil company there is Shell. It operates around 50 oil fields and 5,000 km of pipelines, much of them ageing and poorly-maintained. The oil giant’s own figures admit to 1,693 oil spills since 2007, though the real number is probably higher.
In 2011 the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) exposed massive levels of pollution caused by oil spills from Shell pipelines in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta. UNEP also exposed how the damage done to the environment and people was exacerbated by the company’s failure to clean up the spills properly. In response, Shell promised to clean up sites identified by UNEP and improve its response to future spills.
Yet in field investigations at four of the spill sites UNEP identified as highly polluted in 2011, Amnesty International and CEHRD found all four remain visibly contaminated in 2015, even though Shell says it has cleaned them. The investigation demonstrates this is due to inadequate clean-up, and not new oil spills.
At one of the locations, Shell’s Bomu Well 11, researchers found blackened soil and layers of oil on the water, 45 years after an oil spill took place - even though Shell claims to have cleaned it up twice, in 1975 and 2012. At other sites, certified as cleaned by the Nigerian regulator, researchers found soil and water contaminated by oil close to where people lived and farmed.
The investigation shows Shell has not addressed problems with its entire approach to cleaning up oil pollution in Nigeria, including how it trains and oversees the local contractors that actually conduct the work.
One contractor who had been hired by Shell told Amnesty International how half-hearted and superficial clean-up efforts fail to prevent lasting environmental damage:
“This is just a cover up. If you just dig down a few metres you find oil. We just excavated, then shifted the soil away, then covered it all up again.”
Communities bear the brunt of oil pollution
Communities told Amnesty International and CEHRD how lingering pollution after oil spills had contaminated the land and rivers that nearly two-thirds of the Niger Delta’s people rely on for food and livelihood. Emadee Roberts Kpai, now in his 80s, was a farmer and fisherman until the oil spill at Bomu Manifold in 2009.
“Our creeks are no more. Fishing activity is no more productive. The farm I should be farming has already been devastated by oil spills from Shell. Our crops are no longer productive. No fish in the water. We plant the crops, they grow but the harvest is poor.
“When Shell came to our community, they promised that if they find oil they’ll transform our community, and everybody will be happy… Instead we got nothing from it.”
[note: for more testimony from the community, see case study document]
Shell fails to act despite UN criticism
Shell told Amnesty International it disagreed with the organizations’ findings, without providing any details. The company directed researchers to its website, but this provides very little information about clean up. Shell also repeated its claim that most oil spills and pollution are caused by illegal activity, such as people stealing oil from pipes rather than poor maintenance.
Amnesty International and CEHRD have exposed false statements made by Shell about illegal activity and the extent of oil spills due to corroded pipes in previous reports.
In any case, Nigerian law says companies who own pipelines are responsible for cleaning up, no matter what causes a spill.
Amnesty International is calling on Shell to be more transparent about its clean-up operations. The organization also says the Nigerian government needs to strengthen its watchdog, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA).
”Shell says theft is to blame for oil spills, but even if that were true it would not excuse the company’s consistent failure to clean up oil pollution. Shell’s blame game can no longer deflect attention from its broken promises and neglected infrastructure,” said Mark Dummett.
“As long as oil companies fail to live up to their commitments, the Niger Delta will remain a cautionary tale of communities promised prosperity, but left with blighted, devastated lands.”
Background: Clean It Up campaign targets Shell
The report is part of Amnesty International’s Clean It Up campaign, which calls on Shell to finally deal with the devastating impact of oil spills in Niger Delta. The campaign involves special vigils and protest actions outside Shell petrol stations ahead of the 20th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution after an unfair trial on 10 November 1995.
The campaign will also feature a spoof video based on Shell’s own “Make the future” recruitment campaign targeting engineering students.