The Nigerian state may be in for a tough time as a very large part of the Niger Delta region is now ruled by operators of illegal refineries. The Niger Delta environment is being destroyed daily through spillage and disposal of waste from the crude refining across the creeks and waterways.
Pictures and videos of many parts of the creeks and waterways of the Niger Delta on Friday revealed increasingly sophisticated operations of hundreds of illegal refineries and bunkering sites along the over 5,000 kilometres oil pipelines in the region.
Sunday Tribune’s exclusive access to the dangerous creeks and waterways’ covered such areas as Imo River, Awoba area, Krakana, Bodo West, Bonny River, Cawthorne and Nembe of Rivers State with investigators confirming that worst cases were replete in Bayelsa and many parts of Delta State.
A noticeable trend throughout the flight was that illegal refiners were clearly at work conducting their operations in broad day light. At a point in Bodo West when Sunday Tribune flew low, gun wielding operators of one of the refineries warned us to back off by waving their deadly weapons at us.
In Krakana, many acres of lands were dotted with active illegal refineries with many boats loaded with drums on the creek side.
In Bodo West and other areas, the refining equipment appeared to to have been made of drums and welded steels which were then heated to distil the stolen crude for diesel.
In all the areas visited, the pipelines were dotted with hacked points fitted with taps which were linked to the illegal refineries located inside the creeks and waterways.
The pipelines clearly showed signs of vandalism as in Cawthornearea, about four bunkerers were seen fixing their taps on the pipelines with a long hose leading right inside the creeks where the refinery was located.
On seeing intruders, they took to their heels, disappearing into the jungles though leaving their taps still fitted into the pipelines.
During the flight, more than 50 refineries were seen in operation with the cooking of the crude to distil diesel generating flames currently flaring up across the various sites.
In many areas, the more than 100 refineries bombed last year by the Joint Military Task Force in the areas were being revived with new sites being developed beside the destroyed facilities.
In Awobaarea, the bunkerers were even more sophisticated as they dug the ground to reach the pipeline from where they welded and fitted their taps which were then linked along the creeks.
All along the creeks were boats of various sizes zooming in and out, loaded with many drums and their red flags openly displayed. The red flag was said to denote warning to anybody who might want to confront them.
To confirm the advanced nature of the operations, Sunday Tribune also saw about four sites where boats and barges for crude theft were being made in what looked like a big legitimate business. In Waterside, in particular, bunkering boats and barges were being constructed.
A very disturbing discovery during the flight was the extensive environmental damage witnessed with many acres of land barren and filled with slugs from the illegal refineries.
At many sites from Krakana to Bodo West, large expanse of land laid waste with many more acres dotted with oil wastes from nearby refineries.
What is more, the creeks and waterways were full of oil flowing into the rivers, killing all aquatic life in the area.
Sunday Tribune findings after the flight revealed that the creeks and waterways were truly inaccessible to security agencies as they were deep inside the jungles and mere patrolling of the areas would demand many marines, rather than conventional troops.
Facts on ground in the creeks and waterways visited showed that the areas were largely under the rulership of armed local and transnational gangs.
Stuart Jannes, an Australian who operated helicopter services across the creeks and waterways of the Niger Delta, warned about the increasing sophistication of the illegal bunkerers who he said had graduated from crude drums thieves to ambitious refiners of crude oil across the Niger Delta.
Jannes, who said he had been flying over the Niger Delta for over 15 years, added that oil theft was previously on a small scale with those behind the activities largely unorganised, a situation he said had changed in the past few years with hundreds of illegal refineries dotting the creeks and waterways.
“It is scary and expanding at a pace one cannot imagine. They are becoming bolder and I was shot at many times when I flew low to record their activities. I have been kidnapped twice, but I was lucky.
“See, if an attack is to be launched on them, miraculously, they get alerted and they move to another area. At times, you don’t know who to talk to,“ the expatriate who piloted the chopper for the flight said.
Oil companies caught in the web of this illegal trade are even more embittered and disturbed as the blame of environmental pollution due to consequent spillage is squarely placed on them.
Shell‘s manager in charge of oil spill remediation and management, Igbuku Augustine, told Sunday Tribune that in the past, illegal refineries were not an issue, but that it had now become a major challenge facing the Niger Delta with dire consequences for all stakeholders.