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INVESTIGATION: When Environmental Racism Sways, Part 1: Eni Oil Pipe Leak, a Knik Knot on Nigerian Host Communities’ Necks



By Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Kevin Woke

Four months of investigation by Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Kevin Woke into Italy’s Eni activities in Nigeria have revealed how the company’s oil and gas exploration pursuits have caused environmental degradation and starvation. The company, however, denied all allegations made by host communities.

On July 14, 2023, while the reporters were already in the Aggah community in Ogba/Egbema Ndoni Local Government Area of River State, interviewing residents to understand the constant cry of the environmental and climate impact of the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, a subsidiary of Italian Eni oil and gas exploration activities, a loud call was heard from a man who seemed to be returning from the farm, saying in his local dialect, “There is an ongoing pipeline leakage along the Nkenwu Road.”

Eni/Agip pipeline leakage in Aggah community in ONELGA, Rivers State, on July 14 2023. Photo credit: Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

When the reporters went to Nkenwu Road a few hours later to confirm the pipeline leak, they found gas condensate spewing out from far away. “Please, don’t go close,” said one of the community elders. For safety reasons, the reporters could not go closer to get pictures and videos, but from afar, they succeeded in taking video and photos of the pipeline leakages. An incident that one stakeholder, Evarastus Nicholas, described as one of the numerous oil spills that suddenly occurred. “Even these condensates, when put in the vehicle, can move the vehicle and last for hours,” said another passerby.

Eni/Agip’s pipeline has spilled oil and polluted several communities in Nigeria where it operates, with little or no compensation to offset the impact of the company’s oil spill on the host communities. Farmlands, vegetation, swamps, and rivers and their habitats in Ondewari and Okpotuwari villages in Southern Ijaw in Bayelsa State have long suffered from the company’s oil spills from its pipeline. According to a report released in May 2023 by the Bayelsa State Oil Commission, Eni was listed among the multinational companies polluting Bayelsa State, with most of the pollution happening in Southern Bayelsa.

A screenshot of Nigerian Agip oil company reported barrels of spills in four States in Nigeria. Source: NOSDRA

Long-lasting leaks from Eni/Agip

Eni has a long history of oil spills in Nigeria, destroying livelihoods and biodiversity in Bayelsa and other parts of the country, with the majority of spills going unrecorded by the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA). NOSDRA did not respond to a request for comment on why oil spills are not regularly updated on its website, or whether it has fined the Eni/Agip for failure to report spills. According to data from the agency, 3,603 barrels of oil were reportedly spilled in Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, and Imo States between August 2021 and July 2023. Between August 2021 and March 2023, Bayelsa experienced a spill of 2,560 barrels of oil and 37 barrels of condensate, affecting swamps, rivers, and farmlands. Thereby stifling the people’s economic activities and livelihood. However,

Leaks from Eni/Agip pipelines, on the other hand, have reportedly been affecting host communities in Bayelsa State since 2015. According to documents obtained from Alagoa Morris, Programme Manager of Environmental Rights Action in Bayelsa, several oil spills severely impacted communities between 2015 and 2020.

Lyon Umdukari in his residential apartment in Ondewari

In early March, an Eni pipeline corroded and spilled crude oil in the villages of Ondewari and Okpotuwari in Bayelsa State. A farming and fishing community. Lyon Umdukari, Community Development Chairman, told reporters that the spill polluted rivers and destroyed crops.

There were several crude oil spills in farmlands and rivers when the reporters visited the Ondewari and Okpotuwari communities on August 11, 2023. All community sources pointed to Eni/Agip pipeline leakage as the cause of the spill and accused the company of failing to compensate for the damage or participate in the proper cleanup to reclaim the contaminated lands.

The reporters observed muddy farmlands surrounded by crude oil, making access to the farmland difficult. The oil leak looked recent, but there was no report on the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor. Umdukari said Eni’s subsidiary Agip often spills crude oil; however, the spills have become more frequent since March this year, 2023.

Farm roads polluted by oil leaks from Eni/Agip pipeline in Okputwari community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. Photo credit: Faith Imbu on August 11, 2023.

He said, “Neither has the company visited the community nor paid compensation for the damage done to our crops,” despite calling the company’s headquarters in Brass and informing them (Eni/Agip) of the incident.

“Our only source of water is the river water, but now that the Nigerian Agip Oil Company has polluted the river, we still drink it,” Umdukari said, claiming the polluted water causes skin rashes when bathed. This claim was independently verified when one of the reporters bathed in the water from the Ondawere River.

Biting Effects of the Eni/Agip Spills

The Eni/Agip oil spill affected farmlands and swamps, including swamps. Residents like Timinebifia Salvation, 28, a fisherwoman who depends on her catch from the river with the trap set with her hand-made fishing baskets, said she now struggles to survive as “there are no fish in the river.

Timinebifia Salvation holding her hand-made fishing basket. Photo Credit: Faith Imbu

“This is what I use to feed my children,” Salvation said, pointing to her wooden fishing basket. “Oil has spoiled everywhere, and there is nowhere to step your foot in the bush to drop the trap [fishing basket],” she lamented. “I don’t even have money to buy fish, nor do I have any money to feed my children because everywhere is spoiled.

“Since the pollution in our farmland, we have not received any kind of support from the company, and this is causing hunger for children,” said Koromiekumo Bright, another Agip oil spill victim in the Ondewari community.

Ondewari and Okpotuwari are small villages that can only be reached through the waterways. A local speedboat to the community takes an hour and 15 minutes from the nearest land area. It took the reporters 29 minutes to paddle on the river from the community to the polluted farm roads and another 27 minutes by foot to trek to the nearest polluted site on one of the farms in Okpotuwari, where soil samples were taken.

Digbani Camp in front of her house in Ondewari. Photo credit: Faith Imbu

Digbani Camp, 50, lost all her crops on her farmlands when the company’s oil pipeline eroded and spilled into several nearby farmlands in March.

Camp said the company’s pollution has caused her farmlands to stop producing crops. A claim that cannot be independently verified. “All the cassava and plantain plantations were spoiled, and I took nothing from the farm.”

“I spent nearly N500,00 trying to plant new crops,” she said, noting that “when you plant, the crops do not yield fruits.”

Contaminated rivers and farmlands

The people of Ondaweri and Okpotuwari use water from the river to drink and use around the house. Less than 1% of the people living there own a local borehole, which is not enough for the community because, despite the oil spill from the Eni/Agip pipeline that flows from the swaps into the flowing river, residents still drink from the river.

One of the Reporters on August 11, 2023, collecting water samples mixed with crude oil from the seasonal swamp in Okpotuwari community to take to the laboratory. Locals say water flows from this swamp into the Ondewari river.

Ninemie Morris, a fisherwoman in Ondewari told the reporters that due to the massive crude oil in the river, women resort to using aluminium, popularly known as alum [a solid chemical], to distil and reduce the impact of the pollution in the water, which is kept for drinking and other domestic uses. The reporters asked for a display of how the alum is used, and the action was shown at night. The water was kept until the next morning for dirt and other impurities and substances to settle at the bottom. A teenager was seen in the early hours drinking river water that contained alum. Research by the US Department of Health and Human Services has shown that excess aluminium in the body can cause brain damage and bone disease in children.

A soil sample was collected from one of the affected farm areas in Okpotuwari village. Two water samples were taken from Southern Ijaw. One water sample was taken from an oil spill point in a seasonal swamp in Okpotuwari village, and the other was taken from the Ondewari River, which soaks up oil when it flows into it from the swamps, near the Eni/Agip pipeline.

The samples were collected and taken to the University of Port Harcourt Laboratory to determine the total hydrocarbon content of the farmlands and river. Crude oil contains hydrocarbons, and a total hydrocarbon test detects oil pollution.

The total hydrocarbon content of the Okpotuwari village’s farmland soil was 12,915mg/kg. The lab test results showed that the river water from Ondewari had a hydrocarbon content of 147mg/litre, whereas the water sample from the oil spill point in Okpotuwari village had a total hydrocarbon content of 14,137.50mg/litre.

The people of the Ondawere community drink and bathe in the river’s water. We also tested the pH level of the water, which showed 7.4 mg/liter.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) says a total hydrocarbon limit of 0.5 mg/litre is “quite high”.

Drinking water containing petroleum hydrocarbons can cause stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

On July 14, 2023, two soil samples were also collected from the Aggah Community in Rivers State and sent to the laboratory at the University of Port Harcourt. While the other was in farmland on Nkenwu Road, the first soil was collected close to a river nearby.

The soil from the farmland had a total hydrocarbon content of 21,675mg/liter, whereas the soil from the river had a total hydrocarbon content of 81,675mg/liter.

Japhet Onuegbu, the laboratory manager at the university, described it as “highly polluted with crude oil.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) says a total hydrocarbon limit of 0.5 mg/litre is “quite high”.

Drinking water containing petroleum hydrocarbons can cause stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

One of the reporters collecting soil from farmland in Okpotuwari to the laboratory to ascertain the level of petroleum content in the farmland.

According to the US Centre for Disease Control, some people’s skin may develop a rash or irritation or have other allergic reactions. Skin contact with crude oil that lasts a long time can cause skin reddening, swelling, and burning.

Community residents want Eni/Agip to clean up the polluted areas to enable fishers and farmers to access their livelihoods. “This is Agip’s right of way for the pipeline, and the pollution is from their pipeline due to equipment failure,” said community youth leader Longlife Truthful Egbe. “Therefore, they should come and settle us by cleaning up the environment so that we can recover our lost properties.

Ondawere community is not the only area where the Italian company has destroyed their livelihood. The company has a history of polluting the environment of its host community without proper cleanup and compensation. On July 2, the company pipeline leaked in Fantuo community in Bayelsa, spilling crude oil and destroying rivers and swamps in the area—an incident not recorded on the Nigerian Oil Monitor website. Residents told local media that the spill occurs every six months during Eni’s pipeline maintenance.

Right activist Morris, who has been following up environmental pollution in the Niger Delta for the global rights group, ERA Nigeria, urges Eni/Agip to warn contractors to stop burning the impacted areas in a bid to clean up the environment.

“Agip should ensure whichever contractor is engaged for cleanup does not set the impacted environment ablaze, as is often the case. ERA will continue to condemn such negative environmental practices that further degrade the environment.

He further obliged the Nigerian government and Eni to properly clean up the environment flooded with crude oil in swamps and other impacted areas.

Eni/Agip gas pipeline in Rivers State’s Aggah community. Photo credit: Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi on July 11, 2023.

Eni’s Response

Eni has always blamed interference from outside parties for its oil spills in Nigeria. When contacted, Spina Domenico, a spokesperson for the Reference Press Office Upstream in Rome, stated that the oil spills in Southern Ijaw were caused by sabotage.

Domenico said: “The incidence of oil theft and associated illegal oil refining is particularly prevalent in the Southern Ijaw LGA. In Okpotuwari community, along the Ogboinbiri-Tebidaba pipeline, NAOC recorded nine oil spill events in 2022 and 34 in 2023: all of them were related to 3rd party interference.

We do not have any record of an oil spill even the in Aggah community on the indicated timeframe, we neither have received notice of spill in Aggah. On the same day in a neighboring area, a spill has been notified and NAOC immediately intervened. A Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) was performed, involving the regulatory agencies and the cause of the incident was established to be a third-party interference (hacksaw cut).”

The company claimed to pay compensation for damage caused by its oil leaks but not for third-party damage, which Eni claimed occurred to the people of Southern Ijaw.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the company announced the sale of NAOC, its Nigerian subsidiary focused on onshore oil and gas exploration and production, as well as power generation, to Oando PLC. But the question of who pays for Eni’s environmental and climate damage in Nigeria remains.

Watch Out for Part 2

This investigation is supported by JournalismFund Europe.

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