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Panel probes environmental damage in Bayelsa

   This is shocking and totally unacceptable,” Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu thundered as he bent with a plastic bucket to scoop raw crude from a pond. The Primate of England was struck with awe at the environmental pollution staring him in the face as he toured the oil-producing communities in Bayelsa State.
Shock, lamentation as panel probes environmental damage in Bayelsa
 Since Sunday, January 15, 1956 when oil was discovered in commercial quantity in Oloibiri, Bayelsa State by Shell Darcy, there has been malevolent environmental degradation in the Niger Delta. Sequel to this huge environmental problem, Bayelsa State Governor Seriake Dickson inaugurated the Bayelsa State Environmental Degradation Commission of Inquiry to investigate sharp practices of oil multinationals.
He shook his head in disbelief. He was convinced that nobody and no company, no matter how highly placed, will be allowed in England, his home state and other developed economies, to abuse the environment in such manner.
In fact, what he sees each time he steps out with his team to visit oil-producing communities is evidence of double standard adopted by oil multinationals.
Sentamu’s assignment in Bayelsa is not as easy as he earlier thought. The environmental devastation is unprecedented and unspeakable. He is just scratching the surface. Sentamu is leading an international commission of inquiry to investigate sharp practices of oil multinationals resulting in huge environmental damage in Bayelsa.
Sentamu may have underestimated his assignment when he ensconced in a chair close to Dickson at Executive Chambers of the Government House, Yenagoa where his panel christened, the Bayelsa State Environmental Degradation Commission of Inquiry, was inaugurated by Governor Seriake Dickson.
But he may have had a glimpse of the taxing nature of his task when he saw that most of the seats in the council’s chamber were occupied by all stakeholders in the state, including traditional rulers, members of the executive council and members of the state House of Assembly. No seat was vacant. Others, who could not find any seat stood throughout the ceremony without complaints.
The Primate is to be assisted in his task by other high-profile global experts. Dickson named a former President of Ghana, John Kufour; Director, SOAS, Baroness Amos; Head of the School of Law, University of Bradford, Prof. Engobo Emeseh; Prof. Roland Hodlar of the University of St. Gallen and a Consultant, Dr. Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou as members of the commission.
Others are Prof. Michael Watts of the University of California; Dr. Anna Zalik of Faculty of Environmental Studies, the York University; a Forensic Scientist, Daniel Onifade with a former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Wodu Kemasuode to act as the legal adviser to the commission.
Sentamu and a few of members of his commission, who were present, did not know that the documentary they watched at executive chamber on damage done to Bayelsa environment by oil multinationals was a tip of the iceberg. They were glued to the grim visuals on the projected screen as they watched.
But Dickson knows the entire story. He was not embarking on a futile journey when he chose to initiate an international commission of inquiry on a matter of grievous consequences but treated over the years with levity by the Federal Government and the oil companies. It is an exposé that will add value to the global environmental campaign of his administration, Rise for Bayelsa.
The governor’s speech was direct. He appreciated Sentamu and members of his team for accepting to serve on the commission. He said their work would be a catalyst for the immediate change in the condition and ugly narratives of the Niger Delta.
He said the discovery of oil in commercial quantity in Bayelsa in 1956 launched Nigeria into global reckoning but regretted that the status of the country had not translated into expected development in the region.
Dickson said: “We know the devastating situation that arises from oil and gas exploration. We know what has been taking place in our communities. We are serious about the issues of protecting our environment as a collective heritage of all humankind.
“That is why from the beginning of our government in 2012, we made the issues of environment to occupy a central place. I hope the outcome of your work and recommendations will prick the conscience of the world.”
The governor called on oil multinationals, traditional rulers and youth leaders to co-operate with the commission in its various visits to the hinterland. While appealing to victims of oil exploration to volunteer information to the commission, the governor gave the commission nine months to submit its recommendations.
The governor said he relied on Section two of the Commission of Inquiry Law of the state to constitute the panel. Reading the terms of reference, Dickson said the commission is empowered to investigate the environmental health and socio-economic and cultural damage caused by the operations of multinationals and local companies operating in Bayelsa State.
He urged the commission to analyse the existing mechanism governing the operations of the companies and undertake the comparative analysis and assess the suitability and effectiveness of existing mechanism and determine whether same conforms to international best practice.
He advised the commission to determine appropriate measures to hold defaulting parties responsible and accountable for their activities and to invite evidence from the international communities in Nigeria and within Bayelsa through evidence sections in different locations.
The governor also appealed to the commission to undertake and receive any scientific or empirical report on the environmental, health, socio-economic and cultural impact of the operations of the companies over the years.
Others are to develop a set of informed recommendations that may lead to the development of a new legal framework that ensures accountability and to develop a set of action plan for the development of a healthy environment and appropriate clean up.”
Indeed, not knowing what awaited him on the field; Sentamu thanked the governor for the assignment and said the commission was fortunate to have a number of experts as its members.
He said: “Oil and gas exploration have had a vast impact on the Niger Delta’s land, water systems and biodiversity.  Hearing the impact of the environmental degradation on the people of the Niger Delta has been shocking. I always say that you can judge how healthy a society is by how it treats the most vulnerable members.
“I believe that it is essential that light is shed on the impact that oil spills have had on the land and people of Bayelsa State, that multinational oil companies are held to account, and new solutions identified to address this environmental and human crisis. This is why I have accepted the position of Chairman of the commission.
“Regarding the oil industry and its impact, we are all fellow citizens of God’s earth with a responsibility for one another, as the environment knows no national boundaries.
“In 2015, I visited Samoa, Tonga and Fiji to deliver a series of lectures on climate change and witnessed the terrible impact of climate change upon the islanders. The crisis there is not simply a matter for the countries in the South Pacific – it is a matter for us all.
“Over the course of the week, the commission will set out to investigate and gather testimony of the environmental and human impact of the activities of multinational oil companies in Bayelsa State.”
In fact, the Commissioner for Environment, Ebipatei Apaingolo, added to the theoretical knowledge of Sentamu and members of his panel. He said the environment had entirely been destroyed by the activities of multinational oil and gas companies.
Quoting some studies, he said over 13 million barrels of crude oil had been spilled since oil was discovered and drilled in commercial quantity in the 50s.
He said: “It may interest you to know that no form of compensation has been paid to any community. Our people consume crops with traces of carcinogenic hydrocarbons. They no longer thirst as streams and rivers have been polluted as a result of oil spills.”
The reality on ground dawned on Sentamu and his team as they embarked on on-the-spot assessment and investigation. Their visits to communities opened their eyes to the reckless environmental abuses. There were protests and lamentations by people indigenous to communities devastated by oil spills.
Protests, shock and lamentations trailed the visit of the newly established Bayelsa State Commission of Inquiry on Environmental Degradation to some of the oil-ravaged communities.
Members of the commission saw oil slicks covering the farmlands of Egbebiri and Ikarama communities in Yenagoa Local Government Area. They beheld hungry faces of the people of Azuzuama community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area as a result of their inability to fend for themselves in their traditional occupation of fishing because of oil spills that have destroyed the fishes.
With their cheeks in their palms and with goose pimples, Sentamu and his team of experts listened to the gory tales of environmental pollution by no fewer than 35 other communities, traditional rulers, environmentalists and civil society organisations.
For instance, in Egbebiri, the Chairman of the Community Development Committee (CDC), Mr. Godspower Worikumo, told members of the commission that the last spill caused by equipment failure of one of the multinational oil companies occurred in the community in October, last year. He said the manifold operated by the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) spilled crude oil for about 11 days before it was identified by the firm.
“Our rivers, ponds and farm lands were destroyed by the spillage, which lasted about 11 days before Agip responded. Since then, our community has suffered terrible devastation and our means of livelihood affected as a result of the spillage,” Worikumo said.
The primate was shocked that an attempt to clean up the spills resulted in further pollution. They saw a pit of fire releasing thick, dark smoke that polluted the air in the environment of Egbebiri community. Crude excavated from the soil was being burnt and the smoke spreading all over the community.
The team further listened to the lamentations in Ikarama community. An environmental monitor for Amnesty International and youth President of the community, Warder Benjamin, told the commission that it took about 12 days for Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to respond to the several incidents of oil spills in the community.
“It takes the SPDC about 12 days to begin evacuation of spills whenever it occurs, leaving the community to suffer the effects,” he said.
He explained that the youth were employed only on part-time basis as look-out personnel for oil spills and that when such incidents were reported to the facility owners, they always promised to remediate the polluted areas; a promise that is not always fulfilled.
Also in Azuzuama, the commission was greeted with a protest. Placard-carrying youths filed out to protest the devastating effects of oil spills and exploration in their community. Some of the inscriptions on the placards read: “Our common sicknesses are cancer, kidney failure and difficult child-bearing,” “Crude oil is a curse rather than blessing,” and “Decades of oil spillage, no proper clean up.”
It was, indeed, a day of horrible tales as the commission toured the creeks on speedboats. They witnessed some amazing evidence of the devastation caused by spills on the rivers and mangrove stilts.
An environmentalist and the traditional ruler of Ekpetiama Kingdom, King Bubaraye Dakolo, accused highly-placed personnel of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) of complicity in sabotaging oil facilities for their selfish and pecuniary interests.
He said: “No oil firm can accuse the youth of the Niger Delta before me because they are the cause of the violence we are experiencing in the Niger Delta. Prior to oil exploitation and exploration, the Niger Delta man lived in a pristine environment with tranquillity.
“Time and time again, ocean liners and ships that have the capacity of picking up at once the entire crude oil that comes from Nigeria berth at the Gulf of Guinea. They anchor there and wait. They sponsor young men to go and bring crude from everywhere around.
“Sometimes the oil workers will open the valves and release crude to the barges in the night and these barges bring crude to the big ocean liners at the Gulf of Guinea. Ocean liners are not tiny drops; they are not canoes.
“They are boats that are so large that an entire kingdom can get into them. And then they collect sufficient crude that they take to Europe and America to sell. So, who is profiting? Is it the man that is sent to go and do some menial, dangerous job or the man that sponsors all of these?
“You and I do not have the expertise to burst the pipes. For you to burst the oil pipe, you must have the expertise. And where do you get expertise of that type if not in the oil industry? So, the sabotage that they accuse us of is caused by the oil industry. They are the experts.”

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