UN oil pollution probe in Nigeria will avoid blame

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The UN Environment Programme said Thursday it did not want to be drawn into apportioning blame for "devastating" oil spills in Nigeria but was focussing on how to clean-up the pollution.

A UNEP project leader caused an outcry this month when he said an estimated 90 percent of oil spills in the Niger Delta's Ogoniland region were the result of criminal activity rather than leakage from operations by a joint venture including oil giant Shell.

Mike Cowing, leading a UNEP project to survey the damage, suggested on August 10 that high levels of Nigerian society must be involved, describing the illicit hoarding of oil as one of the root causes of the spills.

UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall told AFP that the survey, which is still ongoing, aimed only to map the location, nature, extent and implications of oil contamination in impoverished and volatile Ogoniland.

"The assessment is not about how the spills were caused, the assessment is about where there is contamination, the priorities for a clean-up and remediation for people in the Niger Delta," he said.

The survey, requested by the Nigerian government, would be finalised early next year, he said.

Cowing had told journalists in Geneva that the spillage from pipelines and installations in the region was potentially more harmful than some of the world's biggest disasters, like April's oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of kilometres (miles) of vegetation in the delta was smeared with oil, fish stocks were "virtually eliminated" and ground water was contaminated, he said.

"So it has had a devastating effect within the ecology of Ogoniland and the Delta," said Cowing.

"It (the oil) has been going within the deltas and the estuaries for something like 10 years unaddressed, so there's an unquantified amount of hydrocarbons that has spilled and continues to spill today," he explained.

Cowing said that an estimated 90 percent of the oil being spilled in the Niger Delta, particularly in Ogoniland, "is as a result of criminal activity."

About 10 percent of the spills, in terms of volume and number, were attributed to equipment failure in the area, where oil is exploited by a joint company run by Nigeria and Anglo-Dutch giant Shell.

UNEP said later the percentages were Nigerian government figures and did not reflect the results of its assessment.

© 2010 AFP

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