Three years after being told by the UN that oil pollution in the Niger Delta demanded a $1 billion cleanup, the Nigerian government and Shell have both failed to make any progress on the matter.
The “No Progress” report — carried out by Friends of Earth Europe, Amnesty International, Environmental Rights Action, Platform and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development — highlights a situation that has seen the people of Ogoniland potentially drinking polluted water for the past two decades.
The problem traces back to the 90s when Shell was carrying out projects in the region, home to around a million people. The Dutch company pulled out of the region in 1993 after Nigerian authorities executed activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had campaigned against the extraction of oil in his homeland of Ogoniland. In 2011, the Nigerian government finally requested the UN Environment Programme investigate the Niger Delta, and a report was produced with the financial backing of Shell.
After nearly two decades of the site being abandoned, the scientific study revealed that there was still widespread pollution of the Niger Delta that placed the local communities at direct risk. It recommended that $1 billion be poured into the creation of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority and Environmental Restoration Fund, after identifying that Shell cleanup procedures in the 90s had failed to remedy the damage caused by a series of historical oil spills.
In the time that has passed since the UNEP report was published, Nigeria has launched the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), supposedly to implement the changes the UN report demanded, and Shell has commissioned another non-governmental body to carry out another report (with the same outcome) and provided aid in the form of emergency water measures. But that’s it.
“The government has done very little,” director of Global Issues at Amnesty International Audrey Gaughran told Wired.co.uk. “They setup HYPREP but it seems to be a fig leaf that does almost nothing.” She points us to its website, where the last story was published more than a year ago. The first memo on the homepage relates to raising public awareness around the dangers of stealing oil (something Shell has routinely tried to blame past pollution incidents on), and the other two relate to the commissioning of more studies. There is no information that we can see, relating to clean-ups of the site.
“Our colleagues have tried to go to the HYPREP office several times and it’s just shut,” says Gaughran. “It’s achieved almost nothing, aside from a little bit of the emergency water supply work.”
Likewise, she says that Shell has talked about a “lot of processes”, but nothing has actually come of those procedures.
Part of the problem is the fact that in the 90s the government certified the Delta region as safe — “suggesting their certifications are fairly meaningless”. This was following Shell’s own cleanup procedures. The fact that the UNEP found significant pollution levels, particularly of the carcinogen benzene, suggests Shell’s own procedures are at fault. “Their remediation processes have done harm simply because they were not working,” says Gaughran. “Because it gave the illusion the site was cleaned, but actually it was affecting groundwater. Communities were told it was certified so parents would think ‘I don’t have to worry about my children playing near the soil and water.’
“People have been drinking water without having the scientific facts before them — the report found some people thought the water was likely to be contaminated but had no choice, others just didn’t know it was contaminated because no one has ever told them.”
Shell and the local government began providing emergency water after the UNEP report, but the No Progress report found those measures to be “erratic”. Shell says it has invested in a water supply system, but has not responded to Amnesty’s requests to show it is reaching the relevant communities.
According to the No Progress report, Shell has routinely blamed a lack of access to the site for the failed cleanup. This is partly because local communities do not trust them or want them there, “for good reason” says Gaughran. “To be fair communities do sometimes resist because they fear Shell will wipe away evidence of wrongdoing — that does happen. But the UNEP report and the new report shows Shell is using that thing that happens sometimes as an excuse for failing to return, going back years.”
Amnesty has reports of Shell going to certain sites, and does not accept that in the 17 years prior to the UNEP report, the company was unable to carry out basic procedures, such as sealing wells.
“Shell has told us they have overhauled their processes, but there’s nothing to back that up — there’s no evidence. Shell has certainly taken more ‘action’, but that amounts to lots of things that seem on the surface to be helpful but actually amount to almost nothing.
“In the mid-90s when Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed Shell did a lot of the same things and said a lot of similar things. It said it was responding to concerns and changing this and that. If you look at what it did change, it was very little — it was PR.”
The company seems to constantly commission studies, she says. One in particular that Shell paid for shortly after the activists execution in 1993, is one of the biggest environmental studies of the Niger Delta to date. But it has never seen the light of day. “We’ve seen snippets, and those revealed serious damage.”
Despite the claims being made in the report, Gaughran is not optimistic changes will be made — partially because of the alleged intricate ties between the Nigerian government and Shell going back 50 years. Indicating to the Wikileaks diplomatic cable released in 2010 that revealed how a top Shell executive in Nigeria told US diplomats the company had employees in every government department related to its work, Gaughran tells us “they have influence in the government, so saying they can’t access the site is not a credible argument. If they wanted something to happen, it would”.
Admitting liability could potentially stump the Dutch company with further costs. Though, back in 2011 Shell did admit to being responsible for two major spills in the same region. In that instance, the company insisted it would resolve the issue under Nigerian law. But the No Progress report is calling for pressure to be exerted not just by the Nigerian government, but the Netherlands and the UK, where Shell has its headquarters.
“Three years after finding out that their operations have exposed almost every man, woman and child in Ogoniland — and almost certainly tens of thousands of people in others parts of the Niger Delta — to lifelong pollution, Shell is still more concerned with protecting itself,” said Paul de Clerk of Friends of the Earth Europe. “Governments of Nigeria and the home countries of Shell, Netherlands and the UK, should make sure that Shell starts a proper clean up and compensates the damage.”
A spokesperson for Shell has said that the company, along with Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, SPDC, Total E&P Nigeria Limited and Nigerian Agip Oil Company, has in fact “made progress” in addressing all the UNEP recommendations.
“The majority of UNEP’s recommendations require multi-stakeholder efforts coordinated by the Federal Government. However, it is important to emphasise that neither the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) nor any other stakeholder is in a position to implement the entirety of UNEP’s recommendations unilaterally. As the UNEP report stated: ‘Treating the problem of environmental contamination within Ogoniland merely as a technical clean-up exercise would ultimately lead to failure. Ensuring long-term sustainability is a much bigger challenge — one that will require coordinated and collaborative action from all stakeholders.’
“SPDC has an activity programme in place, focused on delivering improvements in the environmental and community health situation on the ground. We continue to work with the government, communities and a number of constructive NGOs and civil society groups in the Niger Delta to accelerate progress.”
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