A new United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report  [pdf] discussing the environmental destruction in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta wetlands calls out Shell, and says that the contamination warrants emergency action and an initial $1 billion clean-up fund to pay for a sweeping environmental restoration which may take 30 years to complete.
According to the UNEP, this is the most detailed scientific study to date on any part of the Niger Delta. The survey team spent 14 months completing the study which involved site visits to more than 200 locations, a survey of 122 km of pipeline, reviews of more than 5,000 medical records and public meetings with more than 23,000 locals.
The Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta is filled with creeks, swamps, waterways and huge reserves of oil which have enabled Nigeria to become the world’s eighth  largest oil exporter. Decades of exploitation by national and international corporations like Shell, however, have destroyed the region’s land and freshwater supplies, and have left residents in poverty.
In one community in western Ogoniland, at Nisisioken Ogale, residents are drinking water contaminated with benzene (a carcinogen) at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. In at least 10 out of the 15 sites with poisoned water which Shell subsidiaries said had been cleaned, the public health risk is still deemed to be serious.
A full environmental restoration  of contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and damaged ecosystems [pdf] “could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken.”
Achim Steiner, U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, stated:
“The oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines.”
“It is UNEP’s hope that the findings can break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland. In addition it offers a blueprint for how the oil industry—and public regulatory authorities-- might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the Continent.”
Even though Shell has not operated in the Ogoniland since 1993, the report identifies the lackluster stewardship of Shell and its subsidiaries stating:
Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: the Shell Petroleum Development Company’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues.
The oil giant was forced to leave the region after writer Ken Saro-Wiwa  (hung by the government in 1995) led a campaign against the corporation for its environmentally destructive practices. The pipelines and other infrastructure, however, remain in place and continue to cause spills and suffer from sabotage attacks.
Despite its vast oil resources, the Niger Delta region suffers  from violence, severe poverty and devastation from oil spills caused by faulty infrastructure, theft and sabotage.
The UNEP findings also support the claims of Bodo fishing communities in the Ogoniland region who are taking Shell to court in Britain for poisoning their waters and ruining their livelihoods. Shell officials have agreed to take responsibility for two spills  in 2008 and 2009.
Taking responsibility for spills is out of the ordinary for Shell, which has frequently avoided liability by blaming sabotage and maintaining that under Nigerian law, compensation is not paid when damages are caused by sabotage. Such claims led Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International to submit a joint claim  to Dutch officials at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, criticizing Shell for “nontransparent, inconsistent and misleading figures” by claiming that some 98 percent of spills are caused by sabotage [Shell countered saying the figure was more like 70 percent].
The director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International, Nnimmo Bassey , stated earlier this year that:
"Several studies have placed the bulk of the blame for oil spills in the Niger Delta on the doorsteps of the oil companies, particularly Shell."
The new report combined with the Bodo lawsuit means that Shell, national oil companies and other oil prospectors are now on notice to clean up their operations or face the consequences.
Download the executive summary  [EN - pdf] and/or full UNEP Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland  report [pdf].
Photo Credit: flickr