Oil gushing from Nigerian wellhead blasts hopes of cleaner future

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A deafening roar shatters the peace of Nembe in Nigeria’s Delta as a mix of water, gas and oil blast the swamp and tropical trees.

Yellow-brown clumps of oil stick to the shoreline and float in gelatinous masses down the creek despite yellow booms trying to contain it.

Wellhead owner Aiteo Eastern E&P, the petroleum minister and Nigeria’s president promised that newly contracted specialist workers will quickly stop the spill, now in its third week.

But the trouble containing it is a reminder of how the once-fertile, fish-filled creeks, mangrove swamps and waterways that bisect Nigeria’s Delta became one of the most polluted areas on the planet.

“Aiteo that is in charge of the wellhead have not been taking control of the well head and cannot stop it,” Kelcy Agbenido, a youth leader for the Nembe-Bassambiri community, told Reuters. “People that are suffering in the area they cannot do anything.”

Aiteo said the high pressure of the leak kept them from accessing the wellhead immediately.
It said on November 20 that it had contracted Halliburton subsidiary Boots and Coots to contain the leak.

Nearly 70 years of oil and gas exploration have decimated the Delta’s environment – and thus its farming- and fishing-focused economy – driving many youths to piracy, illegal oil refining or militancy.

Oil major Royal Dutch Shell, which says the bulk of its spills are the result of theft or sabotage, faced stinging legal losses forcing it to pay millions to local communities for environmental damage.
It said earlier this year that it will sell all its onshore assets; Aiteo itself purchased the Santa Barbara well from Shell in 2015.

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Some locals and environmental activists hoped that indigenous companies, with closer ties to the region, would be more effective in preventing spills.
Local ownership is little comfort to Benson Daniel, the community development chairman of the Sandsand Fishing Settlement.

“We can’t even cook in our house because we are scared we may start a fire,” he said of the gas they smell permeating the air.

Nigeria’s environment minister, Sharon Ikeazor, told journalists this week that the government is considering tougher penalties for companies involved in spills so they “have the teeth to bite.”

For those living in the creeks around the Santa Barbara well, such action cannot come soon enough.

“The crayfish that I sell for a living, now they are all dead,” said fisherwoman Afieyegha Seiyefa, showing her oil-covered hands after reaching into the water where just a few weeks ago she could fish for a living. “We cannot get anything.”