This investigation by Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Kevin Woke revealed how the French Company, TotalEnergies EP oil and gas exploration has caused environmental pollution, land degradation and lured host communities in Nigeria into illegal mining of crude oil.
17-year-old Ike and his elder brother of 24 years old in September 2022 visited their family farmland in Oduoha Nvakohia in Rivers State to harvest cassava, only to dig out crude oil in the course of uprooting their farm produce. All their cassava has been killed by the TotalEnergies EP oil spill. The boys now see the oil spill on their farmland as an avenue to scoop and bale out the crude oil with a steel bucket, basin, and cellophane nylon bags to pack it to their dumpsite. An event the reporters witnessed.
Five villages in Rumuekpe in Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State, are hosting the French company, TotalEnergies and reporters' visits to all five of these communities to shed light on the effects of pollution on locals. We smelled crude oil at the beginning of the farm road and observed young greasy people, including girls, carrying a nylon bag filled with crude oil. When asked about how the company's activities had affected them, the locals' greasy faces revealed both fury and sadness.
We encountered two young women carrying a large steel bowl on their heads with a white nylon bag inside that contained crude oil as we drove from the community to the farmlands—around 20 minutes drive from the main community, to assess the effects of the TotalEnergies oil spill on the residents of Rumuekpe, both young and old residents of which have complained that the company's actions have increased famine. Their clothes were a mixture of grime and oily oil, and their bodies shook. We sneezed and shuffled a little when we walked up to them because the smell of the crude oil was so choky and overpowering. We spoke to them from a distance. The second woman was sceptical when Gloria Chukwuemeka, 25, agreed to explain why they had started extracting crude oil from their property, but Gloria continued in her dialect, "We need to talk about it, the suffering is too much." She attributed their mining of crude oil to a TOTAL oil spill that destroyed all their crops, which they use to depend on for survival.
Chukwuemeka said: "Before now, everything was normal but since Total oil pollution, we could not plant crops.
"Our cassava no longer grows, we longer get fish from rivers, our ponds have spoiled and our palm trees no longer bring fruits," she added.
Close to the farmlands is a stream near TOTAL facilities—that is surrounded by woven barbed wire fences. But the water surface of the stream is clothed with oil, suffocating aquatic life access to oxygen and burnt tree logs expressing untimely death with mushrooms. The crude oil oozing out from the boy's farmland has been described by them as a "God Sent" " a low hanging fruit" and a "windfall" if you like to settle or compensate for the loss of their farm produce.
Although the distance from the company's oil pipelines is as far as twenty minutes' walk from the farmland, every hole dug in the farmlands is bleeding with crude oil. Greasy leaves on every part of the farm filled with the crude oil spill, and every high degree of sunlight is capable of causing inflammation.
Residents “God sent’’ Black Gold
"Before now, we farm cassava, corn, and okra but now only cassava rope can be seen when cultivated," Ike’s brother said. "TOTAL spoiled this place (farm). As we dug the ground, we started seeing crude oil coming out gradually, and we dig it wider to open the ground.
"We are far from the pipeline and we don't touch the pipeline. If you go there, there is no road to access the pipes. If we enter inside the (dug hole) you will see that we can't breathe, " Ike's elder brother said, pointing at him as he(Ike) brings out the crude oil with a steel bucket from the hole dug.
When asked what they do with the crude oil, he said: "We collect the crude and sell to those people that have small drums to cook it," he said, referring to the people that illegally refine crude oil within their community.
Another resident of the Oduoha community who only preferred to be described as Solomon, 31, said the crude oil from his family land is what he uses to fend for himself.
Solomon said: "I am not here to condemn the company but they are supposed to take care of us but they are not meeting their obligation.
"We are living in total bondage. No good roads, no water, no electricity, no health centre, and now, we are having the opportunity of survival," he added, stating that the company "look for a way to condemn everybody and we can not die of starvation and hunger and that is the reason we are doing what we are doing today."
When asked further on why he scooped crude instead of crops, he stresses: "there is nothing like crops. How can you grow crops here when crude oil has damaged everything?"
"This place is my family's farmland, and when we dig, we find a black liquid gold that you are seeing, and it's just like them trading on our right.
This is something God has blessed us with and for them (TOTAL) to have this, we expect something good but we are not getting anything good in return.
Two water samples were collected, one from a community stream (which the test results refer to as Oil Spill water) near some former farmlands that are now being used for mining crude oil, and the other from the flowing Zambrayo river (A). Although having a pH of 6.0, which is lower than the WHO-recommended threshold, the water in the river is still within the WHO's drinking water guideline (unlike the stream water around contaminated areas, however).
The Zambrayo river, which is a flowing water, has a chloride level of 4.0, an analysis has said to be acidic and not good for human consumption, according to Kingsley Nwogbidi, chairman of the Nigerian Environmental Society in an interview on pollution issues. The Missouri department of natural resources says Chloride (CL) says low levels of chloride can negatively affect aquatic life structure, diversity, and productivity while High amounts of chloride are toxic to fish, aquatic organisms, and amphibians.
Even if the turbidity results for both samples show that they are within the acceptable limit, research indicates that turbidity levels beyond 50 are hazardous to aquatic life. The main cause of water's cloudiness is turbidity. The conductivity of both samples (19.0 and 71.0) is below the accepted level for fish to survive. According to Shropshire Wildlife Trust river monitory handbook, normal conductivity falls between 150 and 500, and any conductivity that falls outside this range could indicate the water is not good for certain species. The Nitrate(NO3) of the results seems safe for fish and a nitrate above 0.75 can cause stress to fish, according to Lintech, a water treatment company.
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) test results for the Zambrayo River and the Stream show 9.0 and 35.0, respectively, which is over the usual range of 0 to 5. Experts claim that agricultural/pesticide runoff is one of the frequent causes of excessive TDS, which might be bad for the ecology. Research has revealed that aquatic organisms including fish, amphibians, and macro-invertebrates are at risk when there is an excessive amount of TDS present in a body of water.
Dissolved oxygen (DO) levels should be above 6.5-8 mg/L and between 80 and 120 percent, according to several studies; nevertheless, test data suggest that river/stream water (oil spill) has a DO level of 4.8 and the Zambrayo has 2.0. Fish and other animals "may suffocate and die if oxygen levels in water drop quickly or are too low," according to Wales Natural Resources.
Following the locals' complaints that they could no longer farm due to the oil spill, the reporters decided to collect soil samples from the farms, but due to the crude oil, they moved a bit farther to dry land and did so. However, "the result according to laboratory attendant at the Plant Science and Biotechnology department of the University of Port Harcourt, based on the substance tested, the result is okay," but the hydrocarbon on the soil was found to be present. Although the US Geological Survey classed water levels of 0 to 60 mg/L (milligrammes per litre) as mild and soft, our data showed that the total hardness of the rivers and streams is 10.01. However, this varies in different nations.
According to various members of the host community, TotalEnergies EP Nigeria has not adequately compensated victims despite being required by the Nigerian oil pipeline Act 2004 to do so. The penalty for polluters under National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency Act is N1 million, but environmentalists have protested the low amount, arguing that it encourages more pollution and calling for more severe punishment.
The US Centers for Disease Control warns that illegal crude oil mining is harmful to people and that prolonged contact with crude oil can irritate and burn the skin. In Nigeria, dozens of individuals have perished while engaging in illicit bunkering activities. No fewer than 15 people died in Rumuekpe on March 3, 2023, as a result of their involvement in illicit bunkering activities.
One of the biggest issues that Nigerians are currently dealing with is illegal crude oil mining. Lawmakers and security officials have been accused of committing the crime, and the state government has promised to arrest anyone responsible. Nonetheless, more than 120 persons have been detained in the state for engaging in unlawful bunkering activities.
Even though the Nigerian government has been making an effort to put a stop to illegal crude oil activities, activists claim the government is not going far enough, particularly in the fight against pollution brought on by multinational corporations, as these companies (foreign companies) can never ignore the polluted areas in their own country as a result of their activities.
Enefaa Georgewill, the chairman of the Rivers State Civil Society Organizations, accused the oil companies in Rumuekpe of neglecting to maintain their machinery, which led to pollution and the destruction of the land. Additionally, he claimed to have obtained proof that Rumuekpe is sinking oil ground where only one digging would yield a crude oil.
Georgewill said: “Some of the staff working in oil companies are benefiting from the pollution; instead of using technology to track where there is a leakage, they allow it because they are benefiting. would rather governments fail to protect the environment and the people.
“The community members decided to go into illegal bunkering because their lands have been destroyed and there is hunger.”
TOTAL has a history of polluting the Nigerian environment with victims lamenting neglect by the company. In 2022, NOSDRA, a government agency in charge of oil spill regulations, recorded over 4 incidents, amounting to more than 28 barrels of crude oil spilled, according to the information provided by TOTAL to the agency. In 2012, a gas pipeline from one of the facilities in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni LGA exploded, polluted the air, and destroyed farmlands, vegetation, and other biodiversity of life. Some of the affected communities have continued to lament that no compensation has ever been paid since the pollution. The Nigerian government has also accused the company of exploiting the nation, for allegedly shipping crude oil out of the country without making remittance.
Victoria Okpikiri died because of the Total E&P gas explosion in the Egita community, her husband, Anthony Okpiri, a retired teacher, had claimed. She was in her house sleeping in 2012 when the Total E&P gas pipe exploded, an explosion that shook the entire surface of Egita hosting Total E&P, he added.
The sound was that of an earthquake that wanted to swallow the houses in the community, Okpikiri, 85, said. His wife woke up in fear (found out the danger of waking up in fear) with a jittering body, she grabbed her husband and was lamenting that the world is about to end horrifically. Little did they know that the sound was from the Total E&P gas pipeline.
He said: "since then, my wife developed high blood pressure, which caused her untimely death," he lamented. "My wife never had any sickness before the explosion and within three weeks, she developed kidney problems and others," he said. One would notice his grief by merely looking at his eyes.
Okpikiri explained that when the incident happened (gas explosion) she screamed, "Daddy, we are dying, and I told her we aren't dying but we should rush out with the children to save our lives.”
The American heart association said high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack, and several scientific studies have confirmed that an event of anxiety can spike up blood pressure.
Total facilities are more than 20 minutes' drive away from Okpokiri's village but the impact is felt by most residents in the morning as at the time the incident happened. Egita is a small community less than a million, surrounded by bushes, some of the houses were built with muds and blocks.
It's been more than 10 years since the incident happened, and the impact is still alive and felt by the community as members are still counting their losses. Okpokiri’s farmland was destroyed and after the gas pollution, he said his crops (cassava, yam, economic tree, leaf yam) are no longer yielding as expected but he now depends on the gifts from friends and relatives to sustain himself and his grandchildren. According to him, he was sacked by the then Rivers State government after spending three months in the hospital with his sick wife.
Since the pollution in Okpiri village the company has never visited to take an impact assessment on residents nor has there been any form of compensation for affected victims, according to Okpokiri. He recalls that at the peak of the incident, the company had organised a meeting in Titigbe, a neighbouring town for the affected communities in Egita, which he also attended. "I told them to visit the scene of the crime, and since then, no meeting has been done here to gather our opinion, everything has been done in Port Harcourt (the capital city of Rivers State) and other places we never knew.
He claimed some affected families were paid but his family(Imodu) was among the 2012 gas explosion victims that were not paid by the company.
Salome Loveday, a farmer and woman leader of the Egita community, lamented that since the gas explosion her farmland is no longer effectively producing crops as usual. She now buys crops from other farmers in neighbouring communities whose farmland was not affected by the TOTAL explosion. Before the pollution, she made a daily profit of at least thirty thousand naira( $67, Saturday, November 18, 2022 conversion rate) from the sales of her farm produce but now "survival is hard," she said in her native dialect.
"All my farmlands where I plant cassava, corn, pepper, plantain, cocoyam, and yam are all affected by the gas explosion.
"I now buy garri(processed cassava) weekly for two thousand naira to have food to eat," Loveday added.
Loveday also claimed that the water they drink has been affecting their health, and attributed it to the cause of the death of a little child that died of cholera. The reporters were unable to reach out to the deceased parent as they were no longer in the community at the time of the visit. Efforts made were fruitless.
WHO linked water contamination and poor sanitation as ways of disease transmission such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
The Nigerian oil pipeline Act 2004 demands that cleanup and compensation should be paid to affected communities; however, Total E&P has failed to keep to the promises in some of its polluted communities, according to information gathered from several respondents in Rumuekpe and Egita. Activists have argued that TOTAL has continued to neglect proper clean-up and remediate its polluted communities despite the failure of its equipment. Most communities where the company operates are agrarian and fishers. However, over a decade of operation in Rumuekpe and Egita, dozens of residents have allegedly died from the TOTAL activities in Rumuekpe.
In May 2021, community stakeholders and the right group, Integrity Friends for Truth and Peace Initiative (TIFPI) demanded the company to pay the sum of N800 billion as compensation for the death of natives and incurred health issues from the company's activities in three Nvakohia community. Livingstone Wechie, executive director of TIFPI, said the company has not responded to their demand since 2021
Unlike the Egita communities, which are surrounded by bushes, Rumuekpe is surrounded by forest and there are a lot of potholes on the road leading to the communities despite hosting one of the giant multinationals. Although Total E&P is not the only company in the Rumuekpe community, all residents we spoke with pointed accusing fingers at TOTAL as their major issue.
"The major pollution we have from TOTAL is equipment failure, '' said Eze Adams, an elder statesman in Nvakohia. He alleged that the pollution has caused health issues like cancer for women and eye problems in the community. A claim that reporters could not independently gather receipts for backups.
Adams said that since the pollution, there have not been fish in the river, "when digging well, which is the only source of water, you will meet crude oil and we now starve for water,". He added that the community created a mono pump to have access to water since the stream where they get water has been polluted but that didn't work well because " the mono pump we created got spoiled within three to four days."
His words: "Before the pollution, we got drinking water from the river and also soak our cassava in the river, but now, we can't do that."
"My eye problem is linked to Total pollution and I have been treating it. If you come here in the morning, you will see dew, and when you spread your white clothes, it will just go (dirty), because during the dry season, in the course of burning your farm, the fire will spread to the oil spill areas and the flame will spread.
According to Onyeala Okwudu, 54, a retired police officer who currently resides in Nvakohia, tover 600,000 people are living there, with women making up a larger proportion of that population. Farmers and fishermen make up the community's major occupation, and pollution in the river and on the farms has caused many fishers to cease fishing while farmers' crops scarcely yield good produce, he said, noting that he was among the farmers whose crops stopped growing.
TotalEnergies EP corporate social responsibility(CSR)
Host communities in Nigeria continued to complain about a lack of support and a failure to maintain CSRs despite the company making over $5.7 billion in profit across all of its operating nations. The company's website stated that it was dedicated to "creating real value for all stakeholders in fulfillment of our socio-economic and environmental obligations" through the Young Dealers Scheme, Transportation Safety, Affirmative Action, Malaria initiative, The Complete Child Care Initiative, HIV/AIDS initiative, Donations and Sponsorships, and Malaria initiative. It bragged about teaching young people the skills of their choice, including welding, fabrication, and raising fish and crops. Yet, some locals claim that they have not yet reaped the benefits of the company's CSR.
According to Okpokiri in Egita, TOTAL promised to relocate affected victims from the polluted site, but the promise was not kept. However, he admitted that the company has given two of his children scholarships; while his son's secondary school fees were paid in full, the company only paid for two years out of the five years university scholarship for his daughter.
"They(Total) said they have carried us away from the pollution. I am still here," he stresses. "My father is a fisherman but since the pollution, no fish in the swamp, and aquatic animals can not be gotten in the river. Everything has spoiled," he added.
Okpokiri recalls during his reign as the community development committee chairman, the company constructed the community road, supplied electricity, and constructed drinking water. The fencing of the community primary school and renovation of the town hall was also done by TOTAL. The reporters took a sample of the borehole water provided by TOTAL for scientific analysis to find out the water quality. Our investigation revealed that the water was below the WHO-recommended standard of drinking water.
We took a water sample from the borehole water provided by TOTAL in Egita to find out the quality of the water provided. However, outside the pH and the pH which is below the Nigeria standard level other parameters are within the acceptable limit.
Contaminated land, poorly designed and installed boreholes could cause water pollution.
"They(company) said they have provided a market and also a farm but I didn't see. What they brought are five fishes to show us and an open market.
Eze also stated that "the whole of Rumuekpe, no health care centres and some community members who were able to dig borehole, would provide water with their sumo
However, the company was able to build the town hall and provided some individual scholarships. My child also benefited from the secondary scholarship, Eze added.
The company did not respond to the accusations made by host communities. When contacted, Charles Ebereonwu, a spokesman for Total Nigeria, said: "I'm not in a position to comment on these at the moment." He, however, kept mute when questioned about who to contact.
Also, the company did not reply to messages sent to the email address listed on the company's website.
This investigation was supported by Journalismfund.eu