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Environment

Environmentalists report three dead in explosion in polluted Niger Delta

Activists say an explosion has killed three workers repairing an ENI pipeline. They continue to campaign for environmental justice in a region that suffers hundreds of oil spills each year.

Three oil workers killed in an explosion in Nigeria's Niger Delta have become the latest victims of an oil industry plagued by corruption and environmental and human rights abuses, according to a local environmental group.

Alagoa Morris of Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth Nigeria said he was alerted to the disaster on Monday, when bodies were removed a day after the explosion happened in the southern Nigerian state of Bayelsa.

Morris reported that the dead were working to repair a pipeline owned by Italian energy company ENI. The company has not responded to requests to confirm this.

Morris said oil companies operating in Nigeria were failing to ensure worker safety and described the deaths as "avoidable".

Second fatal explosion in less than a year

"It is shocking that preventative measures are not taken to forestall such accidents and prevent the death of these people," he told DW.

Oil industry, Nigeria © picture alliance/dpa/M. Gutierrez

Nigeria is the world's 13th largest oil producing country, but residents of its oil-rich Niger Delta see little benefit

In July last year, another explosion at an ENI pipeline in Bayelsa killed 14 people, including a local environment ministry engineer who friends and colleagues say fought to hold oil companies in the region accountable for environmental damage.

Writing at the time, colleague Iniruo Wills said Theophilus Duabo's death was "a rude confirmation of the worst fears" that as a result of the "reckless and callous way in which the Nigerian petroleum industry operates… Bayelsa State (indeed the oil-polluted Niger Delta region) is a huge series of fatal fires and explosions waiting to erupt."

The Niger Delta was once an area of rich biodiversity and natural beauty, but over more than four decades it has seen hundreds of oil spills each year.

Hundreds of oil spills each year

Spills from facilities operated by Shell amounted to over 350,000 barrels between 2007 and 2014, according to the company's own figures.

But in a report published in November last year, Amnesty International estimated 100,000 barrels were spilled in one 2008 incident alone, compared to just 1,640 barrels reported by Shell.

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For comparison, the famous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 released 257,000 barrels of oil.

ENI reported 349 spills in 2014, according to Amnesty.

Widespread contamination

As a result, drinking water, farmland, rivers and mangroves are contaminated, with major consequences for the local population, who report breathing problems, skin lesions and other health problems.

In 2011 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessed the impact of oil spills in the Niger Delta's Ogoniland and found drinking water contaminated with carcinogenic hydrocarbons 900 times higher than safe levels.

"The Ogoni community is exposed to hydrocarbons every day through multiple routes," UNEP said. "While the impact of individual contaminated land sites tends to be localized, air pollution related to oil industry operations is all pervasive and affecting the quality of life of close to one million people."

UNEP estimated that complete restoration of the area could take 30 years. Five years on, Amnesty said the Nigerian government and Shell, responsible for oil operations in the area, had failed to meet most of UNEP's recommendations.

Environmental racism

Morris argues that oil companies are getting away with environmental crimes that would be unacceptable in the West.

"(Oil companies) are treating us in a way that that we see as racist, environmentally speaking. They cannot do what they are doing here in Europe or America."

Oil polluted creek, Ogoniland, Nigeria © EPA/MARTEN VAN DIJL

The Niger Delta was once an area of rich biodiversity and natural beauty, but it has suffered hundreds of oil spills each year for decades

But activists say corrupt Nigerian authorities shoulder much of the responsibility, with state regulators approving sites as clean that are still heavily contaminated, while oil spill victims attempting to claim compensation stand little chance in Nigerian courts.

"We are not blaming the companies entirely. The blame should also go to the federal government and state government who are more interested in revenue that is raked in from the proceeds of oil sales," Morris said. "Laws are not enforced."

Victory abroad

Which is why some activists are now taking their fight to courts abroad. In January 2015, Shell agreed to pay the residents of the town of Bodo in the Niger Delta 76 million euros (81 million dollars) in compensation for oil spills, following a three-year legal battle in a British court.

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists campaigning for environmental justice in Ogoniland were executed by the state in 1993

Cases against Shell in the Netherlands and Chevron in the United States are currently ongoing.

"The international community – or the parent countries of these oil companies – should ensure that the high standards prevailing at home countries are also applied here," said Morris. "There should be a mechanism to ensure that the oil companies operate according to international standards."

Locals have not taken the destruction of their homeland sitting down. Ogoniland in particular has seen decades of upheaval as a result.

In 1995, writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmental and human rights activists from the region were put to death following a trial described by Amnesty as "politically-motivated and grossly unfair".

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