Shell Oil Spill Hits Nigerian Shores, Fishing Suspended

ABUJA, Nigeria, January 2, 2012 (ENS) – Nigerian officials have suspended fishing off the southern coast after about 40,000 barrels (1.7 million gallons) of crude oil was spilled from a Shell production platform in the Bonga oil field.

The oil leaked into the Atlantic Ocean on December 20, 2011 during what the company called a “routine operation” to transfer oil to a tanker from Shell’s Bonga floating production, storage and off-take vessel.

Oil spilled from Shell’s platform in the Bonga field off the coast of Nigeria, December 20, 2011 (Photo courtesy Shell)

The oily sheen covered an estimated 350-square-mile area off the oil-rich Niger Delta. Shell has shut down the entire Bonga oil field, a site 75 miles off the coast that produces 200,000 barrels of oil and gas a day.

An investigation is underway to determine how 40,000 barrels of oil spilled while being loaded onto the tanker. Shell says a break in a transfer line is to blame.

Since the leak, teams from the Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, SNEPCo, have worked around the clock with international oil spill experts, using a combination of dispersants and booms to control the leaked oil, the company said in a statement.

SNEPCo said on December 26 that the oil from the Bonga spill has “largely dispersed.” The company helicoptered journalists over the spill on December 26 and then flew to a nearby location to see where, company officials said, “third party oil, believed to have been spilled from another vessel in the area, has hampered SNEPCo’s efforts to tackle the leak from Bonga.”

Map of Nigeria’s Atlantic coast with the Bonga field marked in red (Map courtesy Marcel de Jong, Shell Deepwater Services Regional Study Team)

“This oil has come ashore on short areas of coastline. SNEPCo will clean up this oil, both on and offshore,” the company said.

The company says it will continue to monitor the area using boats, aircraft and satellite imagery, and will “take appropriate steps to disperse any further persistent oil sheens.”

But contrary to company statements downplaying the seriousness of the spill, local residents say it is spreading and has impacted 13 coastal villages. People living on the coast said Monday that officials are not doing enough to clean up the spill.

Fishermen in Akwa Ibom State are complaining about the suspension directive issued by the Nigerian Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, Reverend Samuel Ayadi, who chairs the Akwa Ibom chapter of Artisan Fishermen Association of Nigeria, told the News Agency of Nigeria on Sunday.

NOSDRA head Sir Peter Idabor warns that the leak could be three times as large as Shell admits and may be the country’s worst case of oil pollution in 10 years.

The Bonga Floating Production Storage and Offloading vessel (Photo courtesy Shell)

“This is potentially a major incident that is likely to affect the environment and the people for a long time,” Idabor said.

Environmental groups say local beaches are coated with black sludge and drinking water has been polluted.

On Sunday, field monitors from the Nigerian group Environmental Rights Action, which is Friends of the Earth Nigeria, visited two affected communities in the Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, along the Dodo River.

The field monitors were accompanied by the national spokesman of the Ijaw Youth Council, Jeremiah Perekeme Oweipele, as well as two other members of the Council, a civil rights organization.

The team visited two fishing communities located where Dodo River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Shell has placed two oil containment booms, one on either side of the river.

City Saka, former chairman of the Community Development Committee of Bilabiri, one of the affected communities, told the monitoring team, “It is true that the Bonga spill spread to our community, Bilabiri. That was one of the subjects of discussion between Shell and the 13 communities in the area on December 29, 2011 at Wellington Hotel, Warri. Shell actually admitted that we were impacted by the spill from Bonga.”

The 356 square mile Bonga oil spill is seen in this satellite view taken on December 21, 2011 by an instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite. (Envisat ASAR image analyzed by SkyTruth. Data courtesy European Space Agency)

The environmental groups are demanding that the Nigerian government set up a team of expert stakeholders to investigate the spill. They want the government to compel Shell to state the actual amounts of oil spilled from its facility.

The groups also are demanding that Shell reveal the names and types of chemical dispersants used in fighting the spill. In addition, they want Shell to pay “adequate compensation for specific and general damage to victims of the Bonga spill.”

“We are sorry this leak has happened,” said Shell Nigeria Country Chair Mutiu Sunmonu. “As soon as we became aware of it, we stopped the flow of oil and mobilized our own resources, as well as industry expertise, to ensure its effects are minimized.”

“It is important to stress that this was not a well control incident of any sort, and to make clear that no-one has been injured,” said Sunmonu. “All necessary measures will be taken to protect the coastline, wildlife and the communities that live there, and where necessary to clean onshore areas.”

The leak is Shell’s first big offshore oil spill in Nigeria, however, the company’s onshore operations are blamed for decades of petroleum pollution in the Niger Delta by environmental and human rights organizations.

The Bonga field is operated by Shell Nigeria, which owns 55 percent of the license. The other partners in field development are Exxon (20 percent), Nigerian AGIP (12.5 percent) and Elf Petroleum (12.5 percent).

The giant Bonga floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel became operational in 2004. It is permanently installed in water depths ranging from 1,000 to 1,125 meters. First oil production was made in November 2005.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.