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Human Wrongs Watch

Drinking water in Nigeria polluted with benzene at levels 900 times above the limit

Families in Nisisioken Ogale, near a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline, are drinking water from wells contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above UN World Health Organization guidelines. Along with many others, this community is located in the Ogoni oil region of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, which has been plagued by environmental damage in recent years, according to UN studies.

Oil exploration and production has been conducted in the Niger Delta since the 1950s but many of the operations have been suspended since the early 1990s because of local unrest, and “the oil fields and installations of the region known as Ogoniland have been dormant,†the United Nations reports.

“In that period there has been only partial efforts to remedy the contamination from oil production, and further spills as a result of a lack of maintenance, oil tapping and damage to infrastructure have occurred in the past 15 years.â€

The World’s Most Wide-Ranging Oil Clean-UP Exercise

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) launched on the end of November 2009, an assessment of the impact of contamination from oil across the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

Now the UN concludes that the environmental restoration of Ogoniland oil region “could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise ever, if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and other ecosystems are to be brought back to full health.â€

“It could take 25 to 30 years, with an initial investment of 1 billion dollars just for the first five years, to clean up pollution from more than 50 years of oil operations in the Niger Delta, ranging from the “disastrous†impact on mangrove vegetation to the contamination of wells with potentially cancer- causing chemicals in a region that is home to some 1 million people,†informed the UN on August 6th, 2011.

Contamination Greater Than Thought

The UNEP scientific assessment showed “greater and deeper pollution than previously thought after an agency team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, analysed 4,000 soil and water samples, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.â€

“It is UNEP’s hope that the findings can break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland,†UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner said of the report, which was presented to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja.

“In addition it offers a blueprint for how the oil industry, and public regulatory authorities, might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the continent.â€

Oil Industry And Government, To Pay One Billion Dollars

The report, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, proposed the establishment of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority as soon as possible, with an initial capital injection of 1 billion dollars “from the oil industry and the government to cover the first five years of the clean-up project;†and a soil management centre with hundreds of mini-centres to treat contaminated soil and provide hundreds of job opportunities.

It also recommended setting up a centre to promote learning and benefit other communities impacted by oil contamination in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the world.

Areas Severely Contaminated Underground

The study found that some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground, and action to protect human health and reduce should be taken without delay. In at least 10 communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened.

Disastrous Impact On Nature

The report noted that the impact of oil on mangrove vegetation had been “disastrousâ€, with many inter-tidal creeks where mangroves that serve as nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters denuded of leaves and stems, the roots coated in layers of a bitumen-type substance.

Meanwhile, Ogoni communities are exposed to hydrocarbons every day through multiple routes.

While the impact of individual contaminated land sites tends to be localised, air pollution related to oil industry operations is pervasive and affecting the quality of life of close to 1 million people.

UNEP has emphasised that the study, which began in late 2009, is independent and its funding by the Shell Petroleum Development Company is in keeping with the polluter-pays principle.

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