Beyond Horror: “Silenced” Oil Spills


In 1981 a UNEP fact-finding mission to East Africa identified large-scale erosion, oil pollution, damaged coral reefs, ruined mangrove swamps, pollution from fertilizers and threats to precious marine animals as the major environmental problems in the region.

The list of threats to the environment has changed little since then. A workshop in 1997 listed domestic sewage, solid domestic waste, habitat degradation, agrochemical pollution and industrial waste pollution. The region remains characterized by vulnerable economies, large populations with a high rate of population growth, and areas subject to environmental stress.


The important and heavily fished reef zone close to shore is particularly vulnerable to pollution and silting. Oil is a major pollution threat to coastal ecosystems, owing to the heavy use of the tanker route along the East African coast. On any given day there are hundreds of tankers in the Region, many of them Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs). Slicks are brought in from spills in the open ocean by coastal currents, while operational discharges from ships and refineries add to the load.

In recent decades, the growth of industry has brought an increasing volume of effluents to coastal waters. The use of agricultural chemicals has continued to grow, and sewage treatment continues to be inadequate in many parts of the region.

Some species of marine animals are already endangered as a result of human activities, particularly the dugong or manatee, which is often caught in fishing nets and drowned. Marine turtles continue to decrease in numbers as their eggs are poached and the adults are killed for their meat and decorative shells.

Eastern Africa is also undergoing an extraordinary rate of urbanization. As the cities have become overcrowded, water supplies have proven insufficient, and systems for drainage, sewerage and refuse disposal inadequate. Domestic sewage is discharged directly into rivers and in some cases the sea.

Although industrialization remains slow relative to other parts of the world, it takes place without proper environmental impact assessments legislative controls, leading to further pressure on the environment. Rivers, creeks and the sea have become dumping sites for industrial wastes. Industries of major environmental concern in the region include textiles, tanneries, paper and pulp mills, breweries, chemical factories, cement factories, sugar factories, fertilizer factories, and oil refineries. In some countries, slaughter houses near the sea are a serious source of marine pollution.


Long drawn out droughts, over-grazing and poor agricultural practices, deforestation and reclamation of wetlands for agriculture are all combining to bring about desertification in the coastal areas of East Africa.

The continued high population growth rate is placing pressure on land beyond its carrying capacity, and driving out the traditional nomadic practices which allowed for environmental recovery. Livestock development is seldom accompanied by proper pasture management, leading to desert conditions in areas of concentration.

When these destructive pressures occur in semi-arid areas with shallow soils, desertification and desert encroachment can becomes irreversible. The semi-arid parts of Eastern Africa are particularly vulnerable.

Coastal degradation and erosion

Human encroachment and activities such as animal husbandry and agriculture are rapidly degrading the coastal environment of Eastern Africa, resulting in deforestation, destruction of mangroves and disappearance of other vegetation; a decline in soil fertility, and the death of wildlife. Marine resources are directly threatened by these activities.

Mangroves were once common in sheltered bays and estuaries, providing shelter to many important fish species and prawns. They are now threatened by intensive cropping to provide firewood, poles, tannin, medicinal products, paper pulp and timber, and to open up new space for aquaculture and salt production. Mangrove swamps are also threatened by fluctuations in the amount of fresh water and sediment reaching them caused by upstream hydraulic works, and indirectly by destruction of protective reefs.poles, firewood and by large-scale clearing for salt production.

Coral reefs have been damaged by excessive siltation resulting from poor agricultural practices, deforestation along riverbanks, and the dredging and and dumping associated with harbour development. Many were damaged by fishing with dynamite and poison, especially before these methods were outlawed in part of the region. Tourists collect coral as souvenirs. More recently the bleaching of corals has become a severe problem.

The shoreline in most of the region is receding as a result of coastal erosion: the shoreline retreat over parts of Tanzania has been estimated at between three and five metres per day. Barrier islands are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Climate change

A task team report on the implications of climate change for the Eastern African region (see UNEP: Potential impacts of expected climate change on coastal and near-shore environment. UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies No.140 (UNEP, 1992.) concluded that the region’s low-lying coastal areas and marine ecosystems, water resources, terrestrial ecosystems and human settlements and coastal infrastructure are at risk as a consequence of climate change impacts.

The economies of the region are dominated by agriculture. Fishing is an important source of food and contributes to the economy of the majority of the countries. Tourism is an important activity.

The effects of climate change will be felt everywhere, perhaps most obviously in altered patterns of rainfall, coastal weathering, atmospheric pressure and evaporation. The spatial and temporal distribution of storms and cyclones will change their paths and frequency, and could well increase in intensity: Some scientists believe the terrible floods of early 2000 in Mozambique are but a taste of worse to come.

Besides the direct toll on human lives, there will be impacts on coastal habitats such as coral reefs, lagoons, and mangroves. The reefs will be vulnerable to wave action and sea-level rise as well as sedimentation. Their destruction will lead to a decline in natural coastal defences and further encourage coastal erosion.

The quality and quantity of water available from rainfall, rivers and ground water will be affected by changes in the distribution and amount of rainfall, evapo-transpiration, surface runoff, river discharge, recharge, and aquifer volumes. Drier and hotter conditions would place an inordinate pressure on water resources.

Ecosystem effects could include latitudinal and altitudinal shifts in plant and animal species as well as, loss of biodiversity due to water scarcity and arid soil conditions. While agriculture might benefit somewhat from a global increase in CO2, moisture deficits would lower crop yields and require additional irrigation. Sea-level rise would increase the intrusion of saline water up river mouths and also decrease the area available for cultivation on low-lying coastal areas and river estuaries.

Fisheries would be affected by changes to the breeding and migratory habits of most fish, hence, year to year variability of stocks could increase leading to a planning and management problems. Socio-economic activities, and infrastructure such as port facilities, waste disposal, roads, are already under stress. Climate change would create additional stress, hence reducing economic performance and growth.

The human factor

A critical problem in the region is the rapid rate of human population growth in some countries. Infrastructure has a hard time keeping up, with resulting strain on educational facilities as well as resources.

Much of the population resides in the coastal areas, employed by the light industry located along the coast and others in the tourist industry. Most of the region’s economies rely on agriculture and tourism which together contribute close to 50% of the gross domestic product. Tourism specifically is a main earner of foreign exchange in the coastal parts of most of the countries in the region.

The population is unevenly distributed over the region. Northern Mozambique and Merca northwards of Somalia are almost uninhabited due to extreme climate conditions.

Both mainland and island populations are concentrated on the coasts, where population growth is higher than average for the region as a whole, largely owing to migration, urbanization and favourable employment opportunities. The majority of these populations are employed by the light industry located along the coast and others in the tourist industry. Most of the economies rely on agriculture and tourism which together contribute close to 50% of the gross domestic product. Tourism specifically is a main earner of foreign exchange in the coastal parts of most of the countries in the region.

The extremely rapid rate of population growth in some of the countries in the region is a critical factor, and the resulting pressure on social amenities, notably in the coastal cities, has become very high. The infrastructure is unable to keep pace with the population growth rate; educational facilities are no longer adequate and the resource base to support the required expansion programme meagre. There is great disparity in per capita income in the countries of the region for a variety of political and environmental reasons.

Oil gushing from an undersea well in the Gulf of Mexico has damaged BP’s reputation and share price but accidents involving other companies in less scrutinized parts of the world have avoided the media glare. Investors have knocked around $30 billion off BP’s value since an explosion at a drilling rig killed 11 people and began an oil spill the London-based major is struggling to plug nearly a month after the accident happened.

The U.S. media and political machine has turned its full force on BP and U.S. President Barack Obama has set up a commission into the leak which is sending an estimated 5,000 barrels per day (bpd) into Gulf of Mexico waters.

In contrast, the international media has largely ignored the latest incidents of pipeline damage in Nigeria, where the public can only guess how much oil might have been leaked. The most recent damage in Nigeria, which has not been attributed to militant attacks that have preyed on Nigerian oil infrastructure for years, forced U.S. operator ExxonMobil to relieve itself from contractual obligations by declaring force majeure on its exports of Nigerian benchmark crude.

The light sweet crude is particularly well-suited for refining into gasoline and is regularly supplied to the United States, the world’s biggest oil burner. Exxon declined the opportunity to give details of the damage, clean-up or repair work.

An industry source, who declined to be named, said 100,000 bpd of oil had leaked for a week from a pipeline that has since been mended.

The Largest Oil Spills in History, 1901 to Present

“If this (the BP spill) were in the Niger Delta, no one would be batting an eyelid,” said Holly Pattenden, African oil analyst at consultants Business Monitor International. “They have these kinds of oil spills in Nigeria all the time.”
Share Price Impact

BP’s share price has fallen around 18 percent since news of the fire at the drilling station on April 20, while Exxon shares were largely unchanged after the force majeure announcement. The largest operator in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell has clashed with the Nigerian government for decades following numerous spills in Africa’s largest energy producer.

Shell said in a statement on its website that its Nigerian joint venture cleans up oil spills as quickly as possible, no matter what their cause, but is sometimes delayed by security concerns or because some communities deny access.

The Anglo-Dutch major said the volume of oil spills in Nigeria for its joint venture was almost 14,000 tonnes last year, the equivilant of around 280 bpd, mainly because of militant attacks on facilities.

“It (the U.S.) is without doubt the worse place for BP to lose their political capital,” said James Marriott, oil and gas analyst at environmental organisation Platform.

“If the U.S. administration gets aggressive against BP, then it’s a problem for them offshore, onshore in terms of shale gas, for conventional gas, refining, some cross-border projects with Canada and further afield.” [read more…]

Nigeria’s Ogoniland region could take 30 years to recover fully from the damage caused by years of oil spills, a long-awaited UN report says.

The study says complete restoration could entail the world’s “most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up”.

Communities faced a severe health risk, with some families drinking water with high levels of carcinogens, it said.

Oil giant Shell has accepted liability for two spills and said all oil spills were bad for Nigeria and the company.

“We will continue working with our partners in Nigeria, including the government, to solve these problems and on the next steps to help clean up Ogoniland,” Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), said in a statement.

The Bodo fishing community has said it will seek hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.

Nigeria is one of the world’s major oil producers.
‘900 times recommended levels’

The UN assessment of Ogoniland, which lies in the Niger Delta, said 50 years of oil operations in the region had “penetrated further and deeper than many had supposed”.

During a visit to a village in Ogoniland in 2007, I went to a small stream that gave people water for all their daily needs. The effects of oil spillage were clear. On the surface of the water there was a thin film of oil. Villages moved it with their hands before scooping water.

Villagers told me no fish had been seen in the stream for more than five years. They told me people had been killed by oil pipes exploding and others had developed health problems after inhaling fumes from burning oil well heads.

When I visited the village again in 2011, oil spillage had worsened. Villagers no longer drank water from the stream. They walked for up to four hours to get water.

Over the past two decades, successive Nigerian governments have failed the people of Ogoniland. I doubt this report will change anything. In the meantime, the voices of secession in Ogoniland will grow louder.

“In at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened,” the UN Environmental Programme (Unep) said in a statement.

Some areas which appeared unaffected were actually “severely contaminated” underground, Unep said.

In one community, the report says, families were drinking from wells which were contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at 900 times recommended levels.

It said scientists at the site, which lay close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline, found oil slicks eight centimetres thick floating on the water.

This was reportedly due to an oil spill more than six years ago, it said.

The report, based on examinations of some 200 locations over 14 months, said Shell had created public health and safety issues by failing to apply its own procedures in the control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure.

But it also said local people were sabotaging pipelines in order to steal oil.

The report says that restoring the region could cost $1bn (£613m) and take 25-30 years to complete.[read more]

An equally powerful question: Will the political impact be just as significant?

Clues to this may lie in the Ecuadorean Amazon, whose lands and politics have been transformed by devastating oil pollution wrought by Texaco and the country’s own national oil company, Petroecuador.

Twenty years ago, near the beginning of that transformation, I sat beside a campesino-turned-community activist, Segundo Jaramillo, as our small plane banked low over the company oil town of Lago Agrio.

Below lay the grimy hub of Texaco’s former operation in Ecuador, with its maze of pipelines, pumping stations, and Wild West bars. Mr. Jaramillo gripped his armrests and looked out the window nervously; it was his first flight.

Heartsick and angered by the oil-smeared landscape that surrounded his home and threatened his family’s health, he had come to Quito by an arduous bus ride through the Andes.

In the capital, he met with Texaco critics and antipetroleum activists, who introduced us. Now we were returning to the Amazon so he could show me his homeland.

In the coming days with Jaramillo and local indigenous leaders along the Napo and Aguarico rivers, I began to understand the extent of the damage.

Huge open pools of oil and toxic sludge were scattered throughout the rain forest, dumped unceremoniously by indifferent oil workers. Contaminated water supplies had Jaramillo’s neighbors complaining of skin diseases, nonstop headaches, and internal organ pain.

In the Cofan Indian village of Dureno, the Aguarico – “River of Rich Waters” – was so polluted that villagers could no longer bathe in it.

A young leader called Toribe told me the population of Cofanes in the area, once 70,000, had shrunk to 3,000 since the day “a large and noisy bird” – actually a Texaco helicopter – appeared in the early 1970s, scoping the then-pristine forest for places to drill. “Many fled from here,” the young indigenous activist told me. “The whole structure of our lives has changed.”

In all, according to the book “Amazon Crude Oil,” edited by the environmental lawyer Judith Kimerling, Texaco dumped 19 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the Amazon, while nearly 17 million gallons of crude – many more than in the Exxon-Valdez disaster – spilled from the main Amazon-Andes pipeline, which feeds tankers bound for the United States. The impact on public health is impossible to quantify, but one study, citing benzene contamination leaking from unlined pits, links oil production to 1,401 cancer deaths in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

The human toll of Ecuador’s toxic oil legacy helped remake the country’s politics.

Alliances among the nation’s indigenous groups, Ecuadorean social justice organizations, and the international environmental movement led to support for emerging leaders who sought to distance themselves from the country’s colonial past.

Ecuador, long the quintessential banana republic whose policies benefitted the US and a corrupt local elite, is now governed by a left-leaning president, Rafael Correa, who declared upon entering office that “many of the oil contracts are a true entrapment for the country.” (Many of the groups that helped bring Mr. Correa to power are now disillusioned with him.) One of Correa’s favorite targets is Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001 and which is now defending itself against a $27.3 billion class action lawsuit in a Lago Agrio courtroom.[read more]

[2011]A recent oil spill in China’s Bohai Sea has raised concerns about the lasting impacts the incident may have to China’s local fishing industry and the surrounding marine environment. The spill began in early June after a reported failure of the central control system on a main oil platform in the Penglai 19-3 oil field.

In an apparent cover up a press release was not announced by joint owners American based Conoco Phillips and China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) until late June and the spill did not make headline news until early July.

CNOOC announced on July 3rd that the leak of crude oil was under control and that the clean up of the effected 1 square kilometer of ocean was almost complete. China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) however reported in mid July that although a clean up was underway the leak was still not entirely under control and that the crude oil directly affected 158 square kilometers of ocean with water quality downgraded in upwards of 3,400 square kilometers of ocean.

Effects of the spill are already being seen in north China’s Hebei province where scallop farmers are reporting unprecedented mortalities of upwards of 70% of their seedlings. Farmers are detecting oil particles in the affected scallops as well as along their local beaches. The economic loss has thus far been estimated at 350 million Yuan or 54 million USD. Some of the scallop fishermen are organizing a lawsuit against CNOOC and Conoco Phillips for the damages they have already incurred from the effects of the oil spill.

The scallop fishery may be the first of many to be adversely affected by this unfortunate event and only time will tell the lasting impacts to the Bohai Sea ecosystem.

Chemical Pollution
Plants and animals produce countless chemical substances as part of their life processes. For the purposes of the Ocean Health Index, ‘chemical’ refers to a compound or substance that has been purified or manufactured by human sources.

More than 100,000 chemicals are used commercially (Daly 2006), and many enter the marine environment via atmospheric transport, runoff into waterways, or direct disposal into the ocean.

Three general categories of chemicals are of particular concern in the marine environment: oil, toxic metals, and persistent organic pollutants.

The total amount of oil entering the ocean has been estimated, but global data on the size and geographic distribution of oil spills are not available, so oil pollution could not be included as a separate category within the Ocean Health Index. However, oil would be among the substances contained in runoff from impervious surfaces and released by shipping and ports.

‘Oil’ is the general term for any thick, viscous, typically flammable liquid that is insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents. Plants and animals produce a variety of natural oils, but the Clean Waters goal is primarily concerned with oil derived from geological deposits of petroleum (crude oil) for use as a fuel or lubricant.

Natural oil makes up 47% of the oil in the ocean. About 600,000 metric tonnes of oil enters the ocean naturally each year by seepage through many cracks in the seafloor (NRC 2003), but input from each is typically slow (Wells 1995) and natural seepage is not considered to be pollution.

The other half of the oil comes from anthropogenic sources, including boats, land-based runoff and, to a lesser degree, oil spills. These sources pose a greater threat to marine environments as the oil enters the ocean in concentrated areas at a high rate of flow.

The largest sources of human oil pollution are urban-based runoff and operational discharge of fuel from boating traffic and port operations. Discharge associated with boats constitutes 24% of the total amount of oil in the ocean (UNEP/GPA 2006).

Only 8% of overall oil ocean pollution is a result of spills during transportation or production. However, the toxicity levels of these spills tend to persist over time and have been linked to highly visible local and regional disasters.

After 20 years, oil pollution from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill persists and, in some areas, is nearly as toxic as initial levels (Exxon Valdez Trustee Council 2009; Raloff 2009).

Nicholas Forte has spent the last year with an array of health issues. Headaches. Migraines. Nausea. Breathing problems so severe they would land him in the hospital.

“We have no idea what it is,” the 22-year-old Battle Creek resident told Michigan Messenger. “Then it escalated to seizures.”

And while the seizures landed him in the hospital — at one point stopping his heart and his breathing — doctors are at a loss to understand why. Tests indicate none of the expected patterns for epilepsy.

Finding out why the formerly healthy young man had suddenly fallen ill drove him and his family to listen to Riki Ott, an environmental toxicologist who has been tracking the health impacts of oil spills on human beings since her home was impacted by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Ott was in Battle Creek Wednesday night at the invitation of local activists.

And when Forte asked Ott about his symptoms, she nodded an affirmative.

“We see that in 16-year olds in the Gulf,” she said. And Forte was not the only person she may have given much needed answers to. Nearly 50 people gathered to talk about headaches, nausea, burning eyes, memory loss and rashes. There were young and old, African-Americans and whites, rural residents and city dwellers, all with one thing in common — they live by the Kalamazoo River and were exposed to last year’s Enbridge Energy Partners Lakehead Pipeline 6B.

For Ott, it was a litany list of symptoms and voices of frustration she has heard from Alaska to South Korea to the Gulf Coast and now in Calhoun county. And Calhoun, she says, represents exposures to both tar sands and lighter oils, each with its own chemical make ups and attendant toxins.

“You’ve got the worst of two worlds. You’re getting a fully double whammy,” she says of the Cold Lake Crude Oil. “Peoples’ health problems (from the Enbridge spill) are identical to the Gulf.”

Ott says that studies about health impacts conducted by health officials since last summer are based on 40-year old science.

“We used to be able to use a thermometer and say, ‘yep, you’ve got a fever,’ but we didn’t have an understanding of how that worked on a cellular level,” she said. “Now, we have the tools and the ability to see how these chemicals impact us on a cellular level.”

Ott noted that just this July a peer-reviewed study of oil spill exposure found the same set of symptoms in each location. They are the identical to the ones being seen in Calhoun county. She also noted that the studies have begun to identify toxicity to DNA, as well as reproductive health impacts. She says many of the chemicals of concern to occupational and environmental health officials have been shown to impact fetuses in the first trimester.

Studies by the MDCH released this summer have indicated no risk of long term health effects. The National Wildlife Federation condemned the Aug. 17 report, calling it incomplete.

“By their own admission, multiple chemicals have not been fully tested. No doctor would look at a sick patient, skip doing a full diagnosis, and declare him fit as a fiddle. Officials are prematurely drawing conclusions about the risks of tar sands oil to human health.” said Beth Wallace with the Great Lakes Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation. “Residents at the meeting, including myself, were extremely skeptical and frustrated when hearing these conclusions from officials with MDCH. A complete study on the make-up of tar sands oil needs to be conducted before we can begin to truly understand the impacts to humans, wildlife and our environment.”

Ott had not had a chance to fully read the report before an interview with Michigan Messenger or the public meeting, but said this determination and realization that specific chemicals of concern have been excluded from a review is not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon for people to be diagnosed with colds and boils, month after month.

The reason, she says, is twofold. First, the doctors are unlikely to be fully versed on the issue of what she calls chemical illnesses. Second, she says, even if they are aware, most insurance companies have no billing code for the diagnosis. This means that if a doctor issues a diagnosis of chemical illness, it is unlikely an insurance company will pay the doctor for the care and time put into making that clinical diagnosis.

Part of the issue, Ott says, is that the science of exposure concerns and health issues is based on research conducted in the 1970s on volatile organic chemicals or VOCs. Those are the chemicals that easily evaporate into the air and can be smelled at long distances. They include things like benzene. But science has science developed a body of literature exploring the impacts of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. She says that while both chemicals may have persisted at significantly lower levels than considered unsafe, they accumulate in the body over the course of continued exposure. [read more]

Rights group Amnesty International has termed investigations by corporate giant Shell into oil spills in Nigeria a “fiasco”, alleging that the company repeatedly blamed sabotage in an effort to avoid responsibility.

“No matter what evidence is presented to Shell about oil spills, they constantly hide behind the ‘sabotage’ excuse and dodge their responsibility for massive pollution that is due to their failure to properly maintain their infrastructure,” Audrey Gaughran, director of global issues at Amnesty, said in a recent statement.

She said that “the investigation process into oil spills in the Niger Delta is a fiasco,” referring to the oil-producing region that is home to Africa’s largest crude industry.

In 2008, a spill caused by a fault in a Shell pipeline caused tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil to spill out into the Nigerian delta.

Four years on, the oil still floats on the waters of Bodo Creek. Local rights and environmental groups say that it is killing and contaminating plants and wildlife in one of Africa’s most bio-diverse regions.

The case, filed by 11,000 Bodo residents against the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, is currently being heard in a London court.

Shell has admitted liability in the 2008 disaster in Bodo, although there remain significant disagreements over the amount of oil that poured into the creeks.



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