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Gas eruption stirs anxiety in Rivers oil communities.

From CHRIS ANUCHA, PORT HARCOURT Tuesday, May 08 , 2012

Onyechere Ikoro is an indigene of Obite, Egiland, in Ogba/Egbema Ndoni Local Government Area of Rivers State, where the recent gas eruption occurred. He was living comfortably in his five-bed room apartment with members of his family until April 3, 2012. He was inside the house that fateful day when he heard unpleasant and unusual noise, followed by earth movement. When he came out the room to ascertain what was amiss, he saw chemical substance rushing out.

The way he put it; “ My house was ruptured, and like volcano, hazardous chemicals started rushing out, accompanied by offensive stench.” As from that moment, Onyechere knew that his woes had started and he began evacuating members of his family to safety. The man, who had heard a lot about earthquake said he thought the community was about witnessing one. But he later realised that it was gas eruption caused by technical fault from a multinational oil company, Total E&P, which has a gas plant in Obite.

Onyechere is now homeless and a tenant in his own village. After it realised that Onyechere’s house was no longer safe for habitation, the management of Total gave him the sum of N250,000.00, to rent a house and made him to sign an agreement in respect of the said sum of money given to him by the oil company. Today, he is not sure of ownership of the land any longer , as Total is said to be making plans to acquire it, after it declared the area inhabitable. Chief John Ejah, who also owns some plots of land in the area measuring about 77 hectares, where the oil gas spillage had been causing havoc over the past years, also had tales of woes to tell the reporter .

He narrated the heart-rending story of how gas spillage and oil exploration in the area had brought deaths and pains and sorrows to members of the community . He said most of the residents are suffering from one form of disease or the other, as a result of oil exploration activities in the area, while their crops and trees are withering every minute. He cited as instance, where the recent gas eruption forced a palm tree to sink. He described it this way: “A whole palm tree was ‘swallowed’ by the gas eruption.”

Other residents, who spoke to the reporter also told how they went to their farms to harvest some crops only to discover, to their chagrin, that they had ‘disappeared’. Actually, they were not stolen, but according to them, they were either ‘eaten’ up or buried beneath the soil by the hazardous chemical. For instance, Chief Ejah said cocoyam; one of their staple foods is scarce now because, according to him, they kept disappearing from the farms.

But of great concern to the community is the health implications of activities Total and other oil companies in the area for the past five years. According to him, many of the residents are now hypertensive and are suffering from various diseases as a result of environmental degradation. Free medical tests conducted recently on them, and sponsored by Total actually confirmed his claim. The tests, according to a source, revealed that cases of hypertension and other related diseases are on the high side. Some of them said they couldn’t remember the last time they drank clean (pure) water from their environment.

The said even when rain discover that the water contains whitish chemical substance that is slippery and oily. She said is an indication that the air is also polluted. “As I’m talking to you now, I’m very sick, others are, too. Doctors said many of us are hypertensive,” chief Ejah said. He said his case got worse, when Onyechere, his cousin, invited him to come and see the eruption, close to his house. Ejah was said to have collapsed, after sighting the gas eruption.

“The eruption made nine big holes or more, in the affected area. When I saw them, I began to wonder when the end to this pollution will come,” Ejah said. Describing their plight as pathetic, chief Ejah said the fate of members of the community is hanging in the balance, especially, as Total E&P has not been able to control or contend with the eruption. Another problem staring the community in the face, especially, owners of the lands where the eruption occurred, is the thought of what becomes of their lands, as Total has barricaded the area and declared it. ‘hazardous zone’.

When Daily Sun visited the site of the eruption, we saw a notice, warning people not to ride motorcycles to the area, make use of handsets, cameras or bring naked light close to the area, as this could result to catastrophic consequences. Those who went to farm on their lands were advised to stop doing so. Many have vacated their ancestral lands; Total gave them little money to re-locate.

The intention of Total is to acquire the land, but we are not going to allow that. How can they fence our lands without first, including our names in the list of families that have oil deposits in their lands,” he queried. Chief Ejah has, however, threatened to sue Total E&P, to the International Court of Justice, if it tries to acquire their lands without following the due process. He also condemned the Federal Government, for not showing concern on the victims of the gas eruption.

“President Goodluck Jonathan should have human face over this matter, because of its hazardous nature. Lesser things that happened in other parts of the country attracted his attention. Government has 60 per cent of the proceeds while Total has 40 per cent, why is the company carrying the burden of the eruption alone? The Federal Government should bring relief materials for the victims. The CBN Governor sent money to Boko Haram victims, but here, where the wealth of the nation is coming from, nobody cares,” he said.

Following people’s outcry, Total recently organised a free health care programme, where the residents received free medical care. The company did it in partnership with the Universal Medicare Foundation. When Daily Sun went to the health centre, where members of the community were receiving treatment, doctors and nurses were busy, attending to their medical needs. Heaps of drugs were also seen in one of the rooms, as they were been dispensed. The Co-ordinator of the Universal Medicare Foundation, Dr. Humphrey Igwacho, who spoke to Daily Sun said they had treated over 1,700 patients at the time of the interview.

He described it as a comprehensive medical programme, adding that it comprised the various tiers of the health sector, that is, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. He said the Foundation had been able to perform surgeries on many Obite indigenes. The surgeries ranged from eyes, dental, gynaecological, among others. Dr. Igwacho disclosed that they decided to bring the community into one package, on behalf of our sponsor, Total, E&P. “They have been doing it every year but the mover for this particular mission is the incident that just occurred. We were in Ogbagi, a neighbouring community, not too long ago.

In fact, it has been the programme of Total, as a social responsibility to those communities, where they operate. According to him, the programme started on Monday, April 23, 2012. Igwacho disclosed that those that booked for surgery had undergone the operation at no cost. He said: “Total is carrying out all the financial responsibilities for the programme, so everything has been going on smoothly, some of them are seeing doctors for the first time in their lives, and for them, it is something exciting. It is a successful programme”, When Daily Sun visited the community, Total was having series of meetings with the people’s representative.

The President of Egi Youths Federation, Mr. Alfred Akoku Umoh, said their primary concern now is to compel Total to stop the gas eruption. He said he could not quantify the extent of the damage caused by the gas eruption, adding that it is the duty of specialists to do so. “See, our plants have withered, visually, you can see things for yourself. Those things have been affected, but we cannot actually determine the extent of the damage.

It is those who know how to quantify those things that can do it. But for us, it is not an issue now, the real issue is, stopping whatever thing that is happening to our environment now. Let the eruption stop!” he further said. He, however, called on the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to come to the aid of the victims, by sending relief materials to them. “People can no longer go to their farms. We are urging the federal government to do something. This is part of Rivers State, this is also part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, moreover, we are producing what is sustaining the economy of the country.

At this time, the problem should not be left for Total. We are also part and parcel of the state and the federation. We are on our knees, they should not only be interested in what is going out of our land, they should also be interested in the people living in the land. Human beings and animals are dying every day”. The President, Egi Women Welfare Association, Mrs Roseline Ada Ede, also spoke to Daily Sun on the issue. She re-echoed what Akoku said. According to her, the community, represented by Egi Clan Monitoring Team, made six demands to Total.

She disclosed that out of the six, one had been met, which is, the free health care. Another one, she further disclosed, is the distribution of relief materials to the affected families and Egi clan as whole. “The meeting is still going on, and the ones we’ve had so far are useful. We’ve just finished discussing and most families have got some relief materials while others will get theirs later. They have got rice and groundnut oil”, Ede also criticised the Jonathan- led Federal Government, for not coming to the aid of the community at this critical period. “I’m suggesting to the Federal Government to come to Egiland, knowing full well that most of the resources of the FG comes from this oil. They have neglected Egiland for so long,” she said.

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