Nigerian villagers say oil washing up on the coast comes from a Royal Dutch Shell loading accident last month that caused the biggest spill in Africa’s top producer in more than 13 years.
Shell denies that any of the oil is from its 200,000 barrel per day (bpd) Bonga facility, 120km offshore and accounting for 10 percent of monthly oil flows, which was shut down by the spill on Dec. 20.
Shell says five ships were used to disperse and contain the spill and that this kept any oil from washing ashore.
However, local villagers, as well as environmental and rights groups, dispute this account, saying the oil is still at large, coating parts of the coast, killing fish and sparking protests.
On Saturday, a team of reporters visited two of 13 villages whose residents say they were affected by the spill in the steamy swamps of the Niger Delta. In both, there were stretches of beach coated in a film of black sludge with a rainbow tint.
In one, two children skipped along the beach, dodging the puddles of sticky ooze.
Villagers in Orobiri, Delta state, spent much of the day scooping crude from the water in plastic buckets and jerrycans.
“When this spill occurred, we called on Shell to come and do a clean up ... but since then, they have not turned up, so we the communities now did a clean-up instead,” said Jacob Ajuju, the paramount chief of Orobiri village, surrounded by rows of assorted buckets and containers full of crude.
As he spoke, dozens of female villagers marched in protest at the spill, their heads adorned with leafy branches to symbolize unhappiness. Others continued to tip the oil from jerrycans into large plastic drums.
“On Christmas day, all the women you see here, were just at the seaside parking this oil into the jerrycans,” said Dennis -Igolobuabe, Orobiri community youth president.
Shell says no oil from the spill washed up on the coast.
“We believe the oil on the beach is not from Bonga. We made significant progress every day to disperse the oil that leaked from Bonga,” Shell Nigeria spokesman Precious Okolobo told reporters in an e-mailed statement. “We are confident that any oil of that age, color and consistency that hits the beach is not ours. We are taking samples ... which will be reviewed to provide evidence that this is not Bonga oil on the beach.”
Okolobo said the oil may have been from “a third-party spill, which appeared to be from a vessel, in the middle of an area that we had previously cleaned up.”
Spills by all oil companies -operating in the region are common and it is sometimes hard to tell whose is whose.
On another beach near Agga village, a man on a motorbike paused to look at scores of silvery fish washed up dead.
“Before this spill came, we were already been informed by Shell in Warri [the main town in the region] during a meeting that this is what is coming ... It’s a calamity,” said Joseph Gbuebo, community secretary for Agga. “On the 25th of this month, we saw some helicopters flying, dropping some chemicals along the shore, but this has been injurious to our health.”
Shell’s pipelines in Nigeria’s onshore Niger delta have spilled several times. The company usually blames such leaks on sabotage attacks and rampant oil theft.
BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured in April last year, spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the sea in what was the worst US marine oil spill. The disaster brought intense negative publicity for BP.