By Tife Owolabi
NEMBE, Nigeria – Three weeks after the Santa Barbara wellhead failed, it is still blasting water, gas and oil across Nembe in Nigeria’s Delta, littering the shoreline and water with yellow-brown clumps of waste as cleanup crews and booms struggle to contain it.
Santa Barbara wellhead owner Aiteo Eastern E&P, the petroleum minister and Nigeria’s president have all promised that specialist workers would quickly stop the spill.
But experts say the difficulties containing it are a reminder of how the once-fertile, fish-filled creeks, mangrove swamps and waterways that crisscross Nigeria’s Delta became some of the most polluted areas on the planet amid decades of energy exploration.
“The crayfish that I sell for a living, now they are all dead,” said Afieyegha Seiyefa, showing her oil-covered hands after reaching into the water where just a few weeks ago she could fish for a living. “We cannot get anything.”
Aiteo has said the high pressure of the leak made access to the wellhead difficult. In a statement on Friday, it said Halliburton subsidiary Boots and Coots would contain the leak within days and was mopping up oil with booms and barges.
Environment minister Sharon Ikeazor told journalists this week that the government was considering tougher penalties for firms involved in spills.
Aiteo bought the Santa Barbara well from oil major Royal Dutch Shell in 2015.
Some locals and environmental activists had hoped domestic companies, with closer ties to the region, would be more effective in preventing spills. But local ownership is little comfort to Benson Daniel, the community development chairman of the Sandsand Fishing Settlement.
“We can’t even cook in our house because we are scared we may start a fire,” he said of the gas smell that permeates the air.
People living in the creeks around the Santa Barbara well say tougher regulatory action cannot come soon enough.
“People that are suffering in the area… they cannot do anything,” Kelcy Agbenido, a youth leader for the Nembe-Bassambiri community, told Reuters.