Nembe Basamri community in Bayelsa has expressed concerns over toxic air, complaining of respiratory problems, following prolonged exposure to gas and crude oil leaks from a nearby oil well operated by Aiteo Eastern Exploration Company.
The oil firm had reported a leak from an oil well at its Santa Barbara South field within Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29 on November 5, but community sources claimed that the leak was noticed on November 1.
Residents at fishing settlements along the Nembe creeks have been living with the gas and crude discharge, which has paralysed economic activities in the predominantly fishing area for the past two weeks.
Nimibofa Degi, a community leader in Opu-Nembe, disclosed the people in the impacted arrears were worried over the air quality in the area, claiming they have respiratory challenges.
He alleged that a four-year-old toddler developed complications following complaints of stomach upset and difficulties breathing and was being taken to a health centre at Opu-Nembe when she died.
“With the girl’s death, suspected to have been as a result of methane gas poisoning, we have expressed worries to our king that if nothing is done urgently, more deaths will be imminent,” added Mr Degi. “As a biochemist, I know how toxic methane gas can be, and we call for an emergency air quality audit to ascertain the toxicity levels in the impacted communities.”
He further stated, “If not for the resilience and robust immunity of the rural people, more residents would have developed severe complications. The result of the air quality tests would go a long way to determine if evacuating the people is necessary.”
He pointed out that the oil well “in question is a gas well with about 80 per cent gas and 20 per cent crude reserve,” and that the ongoing response by more than 50 oil workers “is on oil recovery while the toxic gas escapes into the atmosphere.”
Reacting to a statement issued by Mathew Ndianabasi, spokesman of Aiteo, which claimed that the oil firm suspected oil theft and sabotage, Mr Degi dismissed the claim as “a reckless prejudice.”
“It is just a ploy to evade liability for the obvious neglect. It is a known fact that the well is non-producing, and the area has saltwater while the wellhead casing is made of steel which is prone to corrosion,” said Mr Degi. “Rather than look inwards at their safety procedures for such high-pressure wells, they are pointing accusing fingers at innocent people. The surveillance worker who noticed and reported the leak is being hunted by the security agencies.”
Mr Degi insisted that the community would resist “every attempt to pre-determine the cause of this disaster even when the investigation has yet to commence.”
He noted, “Every alliance between the operator and their surveillance contractors to divert attention from safety processes will fail. We have evidence that when the leak was reported earlier on about November 1, rather than use appropriate sealants, they used clothes to block the crack. We will give the evidence during the joint investigation, and the truth will prevail.”
Meanwhile, the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency says it has authorised the deployment of an oil spill response team from other oil firms in the country to assist in mitigating the impact on the environment.
Idris Musa, Director-General of National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, who had noted that personnel deployed to investigate the incident could not commence work until the leak was plugged, noted that the leak was still ongoing.