June 15, 2024

INTERVIEW: PIA: 3% allocation to oil producing communities total mockery – Activist, Phenson

An environmental activist and President General, Akwa Ibom Oil Producing Community Development Network, Dr Ufot Phenson has described the allocation of three percent to oil producing communities in the Petroleum Industry Act as a total mockery in view of the magnitude of environmental pollution they face. In this interview with journalists in Uyo, Phenson disclosed arrangements by the organisation to spearhead a review of the law. LOVINA EMOLE was there for DAILY POST. Excerpts!

There have been complaints that the 3% allocated to Oil Producing Communities by the Petroleum Industry Act is too meagre, what is your take on this?

I would like to first of all thank the former President, Muhammadu Buhari for giving assent to the PIA. Nobody remembered Oil Producing Communities, so for him to have done that we will continue to remember him. Nevertheless, the 3% earmarked for the host communities is too meagre considering the extent of the sufferings and devastation the people are going through on a daily basis. The host communities do not know what their tomorrow will look like. Their fishing nets have been destroyed because of oil spills, their farmlands have been polluted and they cannot plant and harvest anything.

To the best of my knowledge, we have brought environmental consultants to conduct studies for the purpose of determining the situation of our environment. The results have been quite alarming and disturbing, proving beyond reasonable doubt that Akwa Ibom people have been severely impacted, so giving them 3% is a mockery. As an organisation, we are planning to send a document to the National Assembly to review that law, 10% for the host oil producing communities will not be too much to be considered by the present National Assembly of Nigeria.

You have been in the struggle for environmental sustainability for over 18 years, what do you think are the wrongdoings of these oil companies in the state?

I think one of their wrongdoings is their uncompromising attitude. They don’t seem to accept their faults, negligence and mistakes whenever they record oil spills and other harmful activities. They don’t have a single sympathy or respect for human lives and the environment they operate in. The operators are so insensitive and are not careful as they refuse to put in place measures to check the harmful impacts of their operations.

At the moment, Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (MPNU) is flaring noxious hydrocarbon/gas at different locations offshore and onshore of Atlantic Ocean and at Qua Iboe Terminal with attendant discharge of heat, air, soil, water and environmental degradation. Similarly, Network Exploration and Production Limited (NEPL) is flaring gas at Mkpanak in Ibeno L.G.A.

All these have negative effects on the host communities of Ibeno, Onna, Eket, Esit Eket and beyond. For instance, there are frequent oil spills that we have been encountering in the state. It will take oil companies many years before they can think of cleaning up the previous oil spills when a new one will occur to compound the already worsened environmental situation.

Another instance is Mobil Producing Nigeria, their spill is so regular that before the clean up of the 2020 spill, you may see another spill again and again. The host communities have been made to suffer water pollution, destruction of rooftops of their buildings, poor crop yields, economic hardship, frustration, psychological stress and trauma, abject poverty, poor health conditions and human rights violations.

All we are saying is that they should carry out their businesses in line with the extant laws of the land and International Best Practices. The position of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and other international and local laws are very clear on this matter. The companies and government operators should operate in a manner that would allow for development of their host communities and not to treat them as foreigners in their land. The people should be made to be part of the development process as they are development friendly.

But when the host communities are deliberately excluded from the development process, there is a vacuum that is very hard to fill and this breeds distrust, insecurity and may even lead to violence. It is absolutely wrong and unfair for our people to fold their hands and watch their environment being degraded on a daily basis. The issue of sustainable environment, the good health of our people which are often treated with ignominy by the oil companies can never and will never be compromised. The major concern of the oil companies is to make profit and cart it away like vultures to the detriment of the owners of the land.

What is the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, doing in the event of environmental pollution in the state?

NOSDRA has failed in their responsibilities. We have written a series of letters to the Director General of NOSDRA in Abuja, and the reply is that the Agency is doing this or that. We are accusing NOSDRA of conniving with oil companies to frustrate the people of Akwa Ibom State, compounding the environmental and health situation of our people. We have also prevailed on NOSDRA to implement and execute their core mandate of clean up, remediation and damage assessment in the state. This is in line with the Act establishing the Agency (NOSDRA) which clearly spelt out these functions. That is, that in the event of an oil spill, the agency shall remediate the impacted sites and conduct damage assessment.

But, since the creation of the Agency in the State, NOSDRA has not carried out a single remediation and damage assessment. The Damage Assessment according to the Act is the prerequisite for payment of compensation to the oil spill victims. Simply speaking, the said damage assessment is just stakeholders coming together to identify in clear terms what people’s property have been damaged during a particular spill and proper stock of those properties recorded which will form the basis for compensation negotiation and payment to the victims. This has been evaded and deliberately avoided by the Agency in the State and is the main reason why Akwa Ibom oil victims have not been benefiting from oil spill compensation from oil companies.

If you ask NOSDRA officials why they don’t do their jobs, they will tell you that oil companies are not cooperating with them in the discharge of damage assessment. After that, they don’t care to go further to implement the provisions of the Acts which they know. Now the question begging for an answer is, what have the Agency done to these defaulting oil companies? Are there no laws regulating the activities of oil companies in the country? The Agency’s refusal to act is a clear indication of strong connivance with oil companies to further add injuries to the oil spill victims in the State.

Above all, the NOSDRA Act clearly states that oil companies should not discharge any oily substance into navigable waters of Nigeria. But, the Agency knows other sources of oil spills which include spills during loading of vessels and that of the ship. The question is, what has the Agency done to these known sources of spills other than terming them “mystery spills”? The law says that any spiller should be made to pay a fine of N500,000 a day. This is clearly stated in the Act. Has this been enforced? The answer is NO.

How would you describe the fate of oil producing communities of Akwa Ibom State?

It is nothing to write home about. Oil Producing communities in Akwa Ibom State are generally suffering the worst level of humiliation, hardship, frustration, abject poverty due to the harmful economic activities of oil companies. They are living in an environment that is already polluted with attendant human rights consequences. The people are suffering on a daily basis; their means of livelihood have been destroyed and unlawfully denied. They are only surviving through the mercy of God and nobody is speaking for them because of the pecuniary interest of internal collaborators.

A visit to Ibeno will surprise you. See the quality of water they drink, the type of houses they live in, yet oil companies are flaring gas 24 hours and making their profits undisturbed. Where do they get the licence to flare gas and kill us? Is it not from the government? It is very painful when our people who are noted for fishing and farming are stocked as these traditional occupations are no longer thriving because of the negative impact of oil exploration. It is hard to get fish now and if you come across one, the price will be very exorbitant. You may not also be sure of the quality of fish due to the pollution of seafood. Where will you get fish now when gas flaring and incessant oil spills have made fishes to migrate to the sea bed where nets and hooks can no longer catch them.

Equally, farming which used to be the order of the day is being abandoned due to poor crops yield. Go to farmlands and plant anything, you will not get reasonable yields as it used to be. The cassava plants, plantains and oil palm trees, among others are no longer yielding. Go round the State and see what is happening. Your visit to Eket, Esit Eket, Ibeno, Onna, Ikot Abasi, Mbo, Oron where the activities of oil companies are gaining ground will surprise you.

You mentioned that toxic hydrocarbons were discharged into the Ikot Ebidang community in Onna LGA, how did it affect the community and what is the situation now?

It happened the day the company was carrying out an appraisal well drilling and suddenly gas evaporated from the well and almost swallowed up the community because there was foam everywhere for three consecutive days. We cried out to NOSDRA and the Ministry of Environment of the State who did nothing about it. It was only the Controller, Federal Ministry of Environment that responded. The discharge and the spread into the adjoining communities happened because the company did not put any safety and precautionary measures in place required by law to stop the occurrence and escalation of the toxic hydrocarbon into the communities’ water bodies and environment.

At the moment, the situation is still sympathetic as the people have been exposed to health related challenges, economic hardship and frustration. The hitherto safe environment has been turned into something else as there is no hope of returning it to its pristine state if the area is not cleaned up and remediated. The victims have been denied compensation from the company. NOSDRA regulations state that whoever pollutes must pay compensation to the victims. This is in the spirit of the internationally accepted Polluter-Pays-Principle.

What was the outcome of the meeting with the Controller of Environment?

The company officials refused to honour the Controller, Federal Ministry of Environment invitation for a meeting with him and the impacted aforesaid communities. The Controller went with his team to witness the incident and he wrote to the company. It was after he had written two letters that the Base Manager of the company replied informing him that there was no gas discharge, that there was no incident of gas discharge on the 15th of August, 2023 whereas the incident happened on the 21st – 23rd August, 2023.

Your organisation has been demanding for remediation of the impacted environment and compensation in some cases, what has been the response from oil companies?

There is nothing like remediation from the oil companies. The clean up said to be conducted by oil companies is bringing few indigenous people without adequate protective gadgets to scoop spilled oil into containers. That is what they do and they call that clean up and NOSDRA will give them a certificate of clearance and good performance. Is using bare hands by women and youths to scoop oil into containers clean up?

Oil companies have been accused of engaging in divide and rule policy to cause disagreement among communities, how true is this?

That is exactly what is happening. Divide and rule is the system where they create more problems that have eaten deep into the fabrics of the people. They will deliberately recruit surrogates from the communities to do the talking for them, defend them and protect their interest to the detriment of the interest of other members of the community. They may recruit a father and leave the son and the son will now carry a matchet after his father.

Due to this ugly development, many homes have broken. You remembered what happened during the slave trade era when a bottle of hot drink was able to give the slave masters as many slaves as possible. So, the same practice is applicable today as a family will be divided into many factions, the one that is ready to go with the oil company will eat fat while another faction that is not ready to compromise in the interest of posterity will be treated as enemies. This always results in violence and terror which is the worst antics of oil politics.

I can vividly recall what happened to me and my Secretary General at Ikot Ada Udo community in Ikot Abasi Local Government which suffered the impact of oil pollution from Ibibio 1 oil well. They kidnapped us in broad daylight, held us hostage and threatened to kill us. They told us that if we didn’t produce N3m by 7 am, they were going to kill us. We were kept somewhere and if not for the intervention of the Clan Head who brought some policemen to rescue us, we would have been finished. You can imagine the community that we went to help with a subsisting Power of Attorney donated to us to speak on their behalf, now betraying us.

In all the cases your organisation has filed against oil companies polluting the environment, is there any hope of obtaining justice?

We still have confidence in the Nigeria judicial system. The Learned Judges will do the right thing. We believe they will listen to all our cases and do justice to them accordingly. They are living with us, and have seen the situation of our environment. They know too well that MPNU and other oil companies, both multi-national and indigenous are flaring gas both onshore and offshore in Akwa Ibom State. Our position is never an exaggeration.

Environmental degradation of Akwa Ibom State by oil companies is true and real. Everybody knows that our animals are no longer there, common things like snails that used to be available everywhere in the state are no longer there because they are sensitive to light. Animals such as tortoises cannot be seen again, monkeys have disappeared, all those things that used to make the environment rich have all gone.

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