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Vol 60 No 14

Published 12th July 2019


False starts for the clean-up

Incompetence and corruption threaten the latest government body to be set up to tackle oil pollution

The Ogoni area of the Niger Delta is one of the world's most severely contaminated stretches of land and water, and yet no relief is in sight. Eight years ago, after publishing a comprehensive survey of the environmental damage, the United Nations Environment Programme recommended setting up a US$1 billion fund for the first five years of a project to clean-up decades of pollution caused by oil spills that could take 30 years in all (AC Vol 52 No 17, Who cleans up in the Delta?). The government in Abuja has raised nearly $200 million from its own funds and from the oil companies, but relief for the people in this 404-square-mile area where so many oil pipelines and wells converge remains elusive. The levels of benzene in Ogoni people's drinking water were found by UNEP to be 900 times above World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended safe levels (AC Vol 59 No 24, Clean-up gets murky).

Nigeria set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project in 2012 to run the clean-up, but there were concerns from the start that the people in charge lacked the experience necessary to manage the complex and challenging task. UNEP recommended setting up HYPREP under the Ministry of the Environment, to keep it independent of the oil industry and separate from civil servants overseeing oil.

Instead, President Goodluck Jonathan's administration chose to establish the agency under the Ministry of Petroleum. HYPREP made practically no progress at all, closing amid accusations of corruption and incompetence, accumulating unpaid bills to the tune of millions of dollars (see Feature, HYPREP’s checkered rep).

A second HYPREP that was set up in 2015, now under the Environment Ministry, is in the process of letting contracts to clean-up companies having remained all but dormant for four years. This incarnation of HYPREP is also doomed to fail, sources close to the project have told Africa Confidential.

Companies HYPREP has hired have inadequate expertise in their fields, and the clean-up zones have been divided into plots so small that no meaningful work can be done, our sources say. Africa Confidential can also reveal that established clean-up standards for Nigeria are being changed so that contractors can claim that their jobs are completed.

The UN-mandated clean-up of oil-polluted Ogoni in Rivers State has been called 'the biggest clean-up in the world' by international experts. The 2011 UNEP report rates the levels of pollution and the public health impacts over several decades as far worse than the consequences of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Ogoni has also been a flashpoint in the conflict-prone Niger Delta since the mid-1990s, when the majority of the 500,000 inhabitants mounted a campaign that shut down the operations of Shell and Nigeria's national oil company, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Royal Dutch Shell was the dominant presence here after oil was first discovered in 1956 but since President Muhammadu Buhari won re-election, he has handed the operating licence for Ogoni's 96 oil-wells and 9 oil-fields, OML11, to NNPC.

Meanwhile, HYPREP is supposed to mend this legacy of pollution and that is where concern is now greatest. HYPREP is slow, opaque, and staffed with people with no expertise, our sources say. And yet, the work has barely begun and the $200 million earmarked for the initial phase has not even been touched yet.

Boards galore
There are boards within boards of the Ogoni clean-up. Another Nigerian government agency, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), is also supposed to monitor oil companies' own clean-ups across Nigeria, but HYPREP is the only official body in Nigeria mandated to do remediation work. Despite having a national mandate, at present HYPREP is only funded to clean up Ogoni and nothing more. According to insiders it hasn't got access to the $170 million to do that, which was deposited by Shell and other operators in the SPDC Joint Venture (SPDC JV) into a London Standard Chartered Bank escrow account in July 2018.

The money has since been transferred to the Ogoni Trust Fund in Nigeria, which supposedly works in parallel with a HYPREP Governing Council, while President Buhari also inaugurated a HYPREP Advisory Committee for the Ogoni clean-up in April this year. HYPREP has received $10 million to set it up, which Africa Confidential gathers the SPDC JV has paid into the Nigerian Environment Ministry, of which HYPREP is a sub-department. The $10m is an advance paid by Shell and the other companies in the joint venture, we understand, and that is what HYPREP has been using up to now. If it cannot adequately account for the expenditure of those sums the Ogoni Trust Fund will not be able to release any of the remaining $170m, we hear.

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