Crude oil spill has consistently occupied the front burner as the most disturbing environmental problem in the oil rich but heavily neglected Niger Delta region of Nigeria. But I spent the better part of last week asking some senior high school students if they are conversant with the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency [NOSDRA] but only very few said they have heard about the activities of this agency charged with the duty of policing oil spill in Nigeria. This Government agency according to these respondents needs to more actively carry out advocacy activities on their key mandates because of the indisputable fact that crude oil spill is a major environmental issue afflicting most oil bearing communities.

Over the weekend, a major oil spill of catastrophic dimension occurred in Sabatoru and Igbeta-Ewoama Communities in Nembe Local Government Area council in Bayelsa State thereby creating unprecedented panic among the people. The people are pointing accusing fingers on Agip, a multinational oil company but the company in turn accused fifth columnists who sabotaged their trunk lines for the spill.

Specifically, the Agip pipelines and trunk line-linked oil and gas distribution to the export terminal at the company’s major facility in Twon Brass. Media reports carried on Monday July 9th,2012 stated that the affected population have expressed anger because of their fear that the oil spill could precipitate extensive and damaging environmental pollution which could progressively destroy their farmlands and fishing ponds which are the sustainable means of livelihood for the people.

The Chairman of the Oil and Gas Committee of the Nembe Kingdom, Mr. Nengi James, who said the communities were not happy with the response of Agip to the situation, accused the oil company of adopting delay tactics for the prompt clean-up operation.

James said if the matter was not handled properly, it was capable of puncturing the peaceful relationship between the oil communities and the oil company.

His words: ?Having visited the affected sites, it is indeed sad and most unfortunate that in spite of the huge consequences occasioned by the oil spill, Agip has failed to liaise with the Oil and Gas Committee to discuss how the clean-up could be done.

?It is instructive to note that multi-national companies operating in the Niger Delta region have often employed delay tactics in dealing with oil spillages. They allow the oil spill to spread to Rivers and mangrove forest before coming for inspection and clean-ups.?

Only recently, the Nobel laureate professor Wole Soyinka and the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission Professor Chidi Odinkalu lamented the lack of response by the federal government to effectively compel indicted multinational oil firms to commence clean up exercise around ogoniland in River state gravely affected by oil spill which even attracted the attention of the United Nations.

Already, four Ogoni communities and six families have dragged the Shell Petroleum Development Company over an oil spill and hydrocarbon fire that occurred in the area in 2009.

The communities and families are demanding N121.7bn as compensation for the damages caused by the incident.

A statement by the spokesperson for the communities, Mr. Bari-ara Kpalap, in Port Harcourt recently, said the hydrocarbon fire and spillage, which was caused by a Shell manifold facility, occurred in 2009 in the oil firm’s Bomu Oil Field.

The affected communities located in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State are Kegbara Dere, Kpor, Biara and Deken, while the families are Gberebeedom, Keenom, Dugbor, Keregbor, Biradee and Nkoo/Gbienga Nbe.

The statement read in part, ?In the suit (FHC/PH/CS/133/2012 ? FHC/PH/CS/142/2012), the plaintiffs are seeking a N121, 703, 992, 208.00 compensation for severe impacts inflicted on them and the local populations.

?The communities are collectively claiming N88, 400,188, 208.00 while the families sought to be paid N33, 303, 804, 000.00 representing general damages (health issues and death of community and family members), and loss of farming rights, shrines and sacred places and air pollution.

?Others are loss of fishing rights and replenishable ponds, economic trees, cash crops, land, swamps and creeks.?

It pointed out that apart from seeking financial compensation, the litigants were also seeking a Declaration that the defendant is under lawful duty to employ lawful and acceptable methods to clean-up the plaintiffs’ environment affected by oil spill.

The Plaintiffs stated further; ?We (the plaintiff) also seek a declaration that the defendant is under lawful duty to provide an alternative source of drinking water for the plaintiffs pursuant to their right to general satisfactory environment favourable enough to their development?.

?A declaration that the defendant is under lawful duty to relocate the Bomu Manifold and pipelines to another location not close to the dwelling houses of the plaintiffs.?

Pauline Tallen (Mrs.), the former minister of State for Environment is of the view that government cannot afford not to carry out the statutory obligation of ensuring that whenever there is a spill, the environment must be promptly cleaned up to save the inhabitants from the environmental hazards.

Her words: ?Environmental issues have perhaps attracted more lively discussions than any scientific topics these recent years. This is because man suddenly realized that his dirty habits are wreaking a terrible havoc on his ecosystem-acid rain, ozone layer depletion, deforestation and desertification, oil spills, erosion, global warming, solid waste, toxic chemicals. These contaminants, pollutions and toxicants in forms of solid, liquids and gasses that are spewed daily by anthropogenic activities, are threatening the very fragile fabric and have exposed our very tenuous existence and this hitherto beautiful world?.

The Nigerian federal government in line with global best practices has established the National oil spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) under the National oil spill Detection and Response Agency (establishment) Act of 2006 to handle the critical environmental consequences of oil spill and to enforce relevant laws guiding against oil spillage in t eh oil producing communities.

The President Goodluck Jonathan administration is therefore expected to be in the vanguard of the advocacy for the adequate funding and comprehensive legal empowerment of NOSDRA so that these disturbing cases of oil spills in the oil producing communities are effectively tackled.

Since its establishment, the body has effectively discharged the fundamental mandates embodied in the enabling Act which are to;

? Establish a viable national operational organization that ensures a safe, timely, effective and appropriate response to major or disastrous oil pollution;

? Identify high-risk areas as well as priority areas for protection and clean up;

? Establish the mechanism to monitor and assist or where expedient direct the response, including the capacity to mobilize the necessary resources to save lives, protect threatened environment, and clean up to the best practical extent of the impacted site;

? Maximize the effective use of the available facilities and resources of corporate bodies, their international connections and oil spill co-operatives, that is Clean Nigeria Associates (CAN) in implementing appropriate spill response;

? Ensure funding and appropriate and sufficient pre-positioned pollution combating equipment and materials, as well as functional communication network system required for effective response to major oil pollution;

? Provide a programme of activation, training and drill exercise to ensure readiness to oil pollution preparedness and response and the management and operational personnel; and

? Co-operate and provide advisory services, technical support and equipment for purposes of responding to major oil pollution incident in the West African sub-region upon request by any neighbouring country, particularly where a part of the Nigerian territory may be threatened.

Government is statutorily obliged by section 20 of the constitution to protect the environment from oil spill. Section 20 of the Constitution provides that ?The State SHALL protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air, and land, forest and wild life of Nigeria?.

Conversely, the international convention on civil liability for oil pollution Damage (1992) and the international oil pollution compensation funds convention (IOPC), [1992] are major global legal framework that specifically prescribes measures on how to ensure environment that is relatively free of oil spill.

Senator I. S. Martyns Yellowe one time chairman of the Senate committee on the environment, wrote thus; ?Domestication of these conventions is a sine qua non for Nigeria in its capacity of a leading oil producing and oil transporting country to avail her of direct access to huge compensations from the international oil pollution compensation Fund in case of damages caused by spillages from oil tankers?.

Several years after Senator Martyns-Yellowe made the above comment, it is unclear if the Nigerian Government has indeed domesticated the two global anti-oil spill conventions. To therefore contemplate any measure outside of strengthening NOSDRA charged with the onerous duty of protecting the environment from oil spill is a complete anti-climax from the general expectation of the good people of Nigeria. Nigerian Government must give NOSDRA the legal teeth to more effectively combat oil spill and to carry out media campaign in the same way that such agencies like National Agency for Food and Drug Regulation and control [NAFDAC] always do because of enhanced financial lifeline.

* Emmanuel Onwubiko, Head, HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS’ ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA, writes from www.huriwa.blogspot.com.

Source: Emmanuel Onwubiko.

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