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Niger Delta’s Ogoni Cleanup drags on

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By Abraham Adekunle

One of the world’s most polluted spots worsen as $1 billion cleanup drags on.

Reports by the United Nations (UN) have indicated that mismanagement, waste and lack of transparency are making the cleanup in the Niger Delta’s Ogoniland anything but exemplary. In the more than twenty-five years since Shell Plc left Ogoniland in Southern Nigeria, crude oil has continued to ooze from dormant wellheads and active pipelines. This spillage leaves the 386-square-mile kingdom’s wetlands covered in greasy rainbow sheen. Its once-lush mangroves are coated in crude and well-water smell of benzene as farmlands are charred and left barren.

So, when the $1 billion Ogoni Cleanup began in 2019, it brought back a ray of hope to residents of the area. Backed by Shell’s funding pledge and support from the UN, the cleanup was heralded as the most ambitious initiative of its kind anywhere in the world. But presently, UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) documents recently seen and reported by the press have shown that the project is making one of the earth’s most polluted regions even dirtier.

UNEP faults Hyprep for incompetence, waste and lack of transparency.

An Ogoni attorney with Friends of the Earth International said, “We had hoped that the Ogoniland cleanup process would set the standard for the cleanup that will have to take place in the Niger Delta as a whole. But we’ve not seen any impact. There ought to be some impact on the lives and livelihoods of people whose lands and rivers were impacted by this oil.” The UNEP gave a scathing review of the Ogoni cleanup efforts, which was led by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep).

UNEP paints a picture of rampant mismanagement, incompetence, waste and lack of transparency. The report points out the haphazard storage of oil-soaked soil that lets chemicals seep into uncontaminated grounds and creeks, the contracts awarded to firms with little environmental cleanup experience, and proposals for millions of dollars in unneeded work. Six UNEP documents, which were produced over the past year, were reviewed by Bloomberg. Some of the reviews had been shared with Nigeria’s environment ministry, Hyprep, and its governing bodies. The reviews included an audit of ongoing cleanup efforts, a look at Hyprep’s bidding process, and a list of recommendations for restructuring the agency.

Hyprep dismissed UNEP’s criticism as baseless.

Hyprep dismissed UNEP’s criticism as “baseless, untrue and unfair.” Hyprep’s director of technical services, Philip Shekwolo (who was a Shell official), replied in an email to questions that the government body designed its techniques specifically to avoid the “possibility of secondary pollution” and has so far provided exceptional value for money. Stefan Smith, a UNEP senior program manager, declined to comment on the documents and instead said that the UN body is “currently wrapping up its project support in line with the agreed date at the end of 2022.”

Shell said in an email response, “We recognize how important the success of the cleanup is to Shell and will continue to explore every opportunity to provide technical support to Hyprep.” London-based Shell’s wholly owned subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), is on the governing council and board of trustees of Hyprep. Shell blames Oil Theft and sabotage for most of the interminable spills that plague the delta, but said it cleans up areas affected by leaks originating from its facilities, irrespective of the cause.

Ogoni residents say that Shell should be held to a greater account.

As Hyprep’s practices and effectiveness are questioned, Ogoni residents and their international representatives say that Shell and others who pumped oil there should be held to greater account. “The oil companies should be responsible for cleaning up the environment,” said Daniel Leader, a partner at Leigh Day, a UK firm that represents an Ogoni community and another groups of delta villages in an ongoing court case against Shell. “They have essentially deflected their legal obligations and created this parastatal that has failed to deliver.”


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