Hyprep’s Shekwolo dismissed the criticism, saying the $50 million plan emerged after additional sampling and mapping were carried out to reduce the quantity of soil to be cleaned proposed by UNEP. Bid-document alterations recommended by UNEP, he said, were “fundamentally flawed.” He also said that Hyprep’s accounts are being audited and “will be made public by the appropriate authorities at the appropriate time.”
Generations of Ogoni, sitting at the heart of Africa’s biggest petroleum industry, have waited decades and had hoped Hyprep would spur the region’s revival. But its record so far is cause for concern for locals. The body hasn’t properly cleaned up even the least-contaminated sites, classified as “simple,” according to the UNEP’s November audit.
Most contractors couldn’t explain the quantities of chemicals used to treat polluted earth, and some displayed “very poor waste management and disposal methods,” the audit notes. There must be a “more robust selection” of contractors “to ensure they have the necessary experience, staff and finances,” a UNEP document from March stated. The list of the first 16 companies to be awarded cleanup contracts, reported earlier by Premium Times, included poultry farms and palm oil manufacturers.
It is “common knowledge that the contracts that have been issued were not given out to the companies based on their capacity or pedigree, on whether they have a track record,” said Erabanabari Kobah, a lawyer and environmental activist from Ogoniland.
HYPREP -hired companies clean oil-saturated soil by storing it in shallow pits lined with tarps where microbes eat polluting hydrocarbons. But those pits are often overloaded or “poorly constructed” — with torn liners and poor drainage — “creating pollution pathways and potential contamination of underlying soils,” UNEP said in a 2021 review of work at 29 lots. Piles of the contaminated soil left outside the biocells for long periods of time meant the hydrocarbons seeped into uncontaminated land and creeks, “thus increasing the pollution footprint,” it said. The report includes pictures of murky, green rivulets flowing out into nearby land and waterways.
Satellite image of a Hyprep cleanup site in Oyigbo where UNEP documented overloaded biocells that could cause pollution to spread into nearby land and waterways.
“Technically, what is going on is not bioremediation but largescale, uncontrolled soil-washing — but being presented as bioremediation,” according to a slide-show presentation by UNEP in Geneva in November 2021. It was critical of cleanup certifications, citing “questionable” sampling protocols and laboratory quality. HYPREP has said half of its current projects have been certified as clean by regulators.
Even as questions remain over its handling of simple projects, HYPREP’s budget this year has earmarked $171.6 million for the more technical work of cleaning more complicated sites — projects that it estimates will cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the years to come. UNEP has advised Hyprep against contracting complex sites until its capacity is “significantly improved.”
While large sums are being spent, HYPREP’s oversight is haphazard, with supervisors “generally absent when key project activities are carried out — hence there is a high likelihood that breaches in instructions and protocols go unnoticed,” UNEP said in one of the documents.
Shekwolo defended HYPREP’s record, saying if supervision skills are “inadequate,” the training provided by UNEP “should be questioned.” He said sites had been divided “to allow for lesson learning” so HYPREP could develop skills for the more complex parts of the project in areas close to people’s homes. HYPREP has asked UNEP to recommend international companies that may be interested in bidding, he said.
HYPREP’s budget this year has earmarked $171.6 million for the more technical work of cleaning more complicated sites.
Meanwhile, the mere involvement of Shekwolo has rankled some locals. He spent nearly two decades at Shell, where he last ran its Ogoniland cleanup efforts, before becoming HYPREP’s acting project coordinator in 2021. Although Shekwolo was replaced in March by a former UNEP consultant, he continues to hold an influential position as director of technical services.
“These are persons who actually caused the problem and they have inserted themselves in the process of finding the solution…There is everything necessary for them to try to skew the process so that it doesn’t make them look bad,” said Friends of the Earth’s Karikpo. “They should merely pay for the damage that they caused and let experts do the work.”
Shekwolo rejected allegations he is overseeing sites that are already supposed to have been cleaned on his watch at Shell. He disputed UNEP’s findings from 11 years ago that 10 of 15 sites in Ogoniland certified as cleaned by Shell were still contaminated, saying they had been “re-polluted” by new oil spills. Shekwolo said he introduced “the most environmentally friendly remediation technique the world over” as a Shell employee and has “worked tirelessly” for 20 years to bring about the ongoing restoration of Ogoniland’s environment.
While UNEP has called on HYPREP to “adopt a culture of zero-tolerance to corruption or financial malpractice,” few ordinary Ogoni trust the process.
“The vast majority of our people feel they’ve been taken advantage of once more,” said Karikpo. “The Nigerian state, the oil companies and a few Ogoni elites have taken advantage of the rest of us. There is nothing tangible on the ground.”