Oil giant ExxonMobil in the dock


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Oil giant ExxonMobil in the dock for environmental breach in Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria.

Culled from Island News, Monday, November 8, 2004
The free community weekly newspaper for
Lagos Island, Ikoyi, Victoria Island & Lekki
(234) 01 791 4197


How else would you describe the activities of one of the biggest multinationals in the world, that deliberately dehumanises its junior employees to the extent that the victims eventually commit environmental crimes? Some might call it apartheid, some might describe it as sheer insensitivity while others may simply say it's typical of the arrogance displayed by some blue-chip firms operating in the country. Here in Victoria Island, Texas based oil giant, ExxonMobil is dealing with an ''apartheid'' policy that has precipitated an embarrassing environmental breach by its employees. It is an irony that a company with a world-wide turnover of $246.7 billion in 2003, surprisingly failed to provide its junior staff with appropriate amenities when the call of nature beckons? Left with little or no option, the employees, mainly drivers, defecate and urinate in a pit hole that is flushed into a nearby open gutter right in the heart of Victoria Island. This critical lapse in judgement has prompted the local council in Victoria Island, to fall on the oil firm like a ton of bricks, through a court action.  But rather than ameliorate the mistake and treat the employees concerned like human beings who work for one of the most successful oil companies in the world, the company appeared in court last Friday to ask for more time for consultation and is yet to make amends!

Some where along Ligali Ayorinde Street, Victoria Island, at the heart of the nation's commercial nerve centre and at the central business district is a misnomer, quite frankly, a disgrace to any company that respects the dignity of its employees and the environmental well-being of its immediate community. The culprit is the oil giant previously known as Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited. Today it has been renamed ExxonMobil following a merger with oil giant Exxon in November 30, 1999.

The company's head office is conspicuously identifiable by an imposing edifice at Aboyade Cole Street or No. 1 Lekki-Epe Expressway, Victoria Island. Within that vicinity is its car park and a peep into activities there is mind boggling. Someone perhaps with crude engineering and architectural skills thought of a ''wonderful'' idea and proceeded to construct a primitive pit latrine that flushes the human waste of junior workers of  the firm made up of mainly drivers, into the nearby gutter. It is not immediately discernible when this practice started but it is believed to be several years back. A close scrutiny reveals the various shapes, sizes and colour of faeces deposited into the drains from an average daily participation of more than two hundred people. We hear that the generosity of those who keep watch there, by allowing non employees of Exxonmobil, who are hard pressed to equally fulfil the call of nature, may have swelled the ''deposits'' of participants.

This is how this environmental breach began. Officials of the firm had contracted this project to some hod carriers, bricklayers and plasterers. After mobilisation, they dug up a hole and plastered it with cement. A tunnel was subsequently created to flush the human waste into a nearby gutter. The outcome is an eyesore. Stench from the nuisance is repulsive and belies the reputation of this firm, that has been trying to build for itself a good image in the community and in the country in general. How did we stumble on this revelation? A dissatisfied member of staff, and local residents had reported the ''apartheid'' policy of the oil firm to the local council, Iru-Victoria. In no time, the environmental officials of the council swung into action. They visited the area and decided that the company had to be sanctioned. An Abatement of Nuisance Notice was served and Mobil was summoned to a hearing last Friday preparatory to the sealing off of its premises. It is a standard procedure often used by the environmental officers.

This scenario however throws up two critical issues. The first is the deliberate policy of ExxonMobil to denigrate its junior employees by failing to provide them with decent toilet facilities. Experts in human resources have suggested that in addition to the environmental suit filed against the oil firm by the local council, the appropriate labour union should institute another legal action to seek compensation for the affected employees in addition to a hefty fine against the company. It appears that this seeming disrespect for junior workers by blue-chip companies in the country may be pervasive. Several months ago Zenith International Bank was caught in the same act. Failure by the bank to provide basic facilities left its junior workers mainly drivers with little or no immediate option but to urinate and in some cases defecate in the nearby street. The environmental nuisance propelled residents of Adebisi Omojola Street, to take action including a public notice in Island News exposing Zenith. That action worked wonders. Zenith swung into action to rectify the mess. A visit there today tells a different tale. Zenith has since leant its lessons and it is believed that those responsible were either sacked or seriously reprimanded.

The second charge against ExxonMobil is the wanton disregard for the environmental well-being of the surrounding area. For a company that is constantly vilified about environmental degradation in the Niger Delta, where it pumps oil in the region of 900,000 barrels per day, this ''oversight'' is unpardonable. Why a successful oil company with world-wide profits of $21.5 billion for 2003 (far more than what the federal government of Nigeria earned during the same period) would condone such deliberate activity is baffling. Is it just arrogance, incompetence or nonchalance?

The company makes no pretensions about condoning such activities. On it's website, it pledged to be a good corporate citizen in all the places it operates world-wide. ''We will maintain the highest ethical standards, obey all applicable laws and regulations, and respect local and national cultures. Above all other objectives, we are dedicated to running safe and environmentally responsible operations. The exceptional quality of our workforce is a valuable competitive edge. To build on this advantage we will strive to hire and retain the most qualified people available and maximise their opportunities for success through training and development. We are committed to maintaining a safe work environment enriched by diversity and characterised by open communication, trust, and fair treatment''.

In spite of this pledge, the activities of ExxonMobil's staff at Aboyade Cole Street in Victoria Island tells a completely different story, it is at variance with the company's environmental pledge and must be a source of huge embarrassment to the management. The matter has landed the firm in court, courtesy of environmental health officers at Iru-Victoria Island Local Council. In an Abatement of Nuisance Notice under the environmental sanitation law of 2000, the council's health officer Mr Egungbahun averred that an inspection carried out under the enabling law at the company's premises at Ligali Ayorinde Street, VI, on the first day of November this year revealed that (1) ExxonMobil failed to clear/clean the dirty, silted and blocked drain in front of its premises. (2) ExxonMobil erected illegal and unauthorised structure that discharged human waste matter into the public drain at the oil company's premises. ''In this circumstance, unless you abate the said nuisance within 24 hours of the service of this notice the provisions of the above named law will be enforced and you will be prosecuted by the Environmental Sanitation Law 2000/Iru-Victoria Island Local Government Environmental Sanitation bye-laws 2002''.  One of the council's health officers confirmed that the nuisance was detected on October 29, 2004. The failure of the oil company in rectifying the nuisance led to the court summons instituted by the council.

Last Friday, ExxonMobil officials appeared at a customary court at Muri Okunola Street, Victoria Island. In a charge No. MKC/GB/CR/208/2004, dated November 2, 2004 and addressed to the managing director and management, the plaintiff being the local council averred that the oil firm had not only failed to clear the sills and dirt in the frontage of its parking premises, but had also ''failed to stop the unsanitary and indiscriminate act of discharging faecal matter/effluent from the premises of your parking lot into the public drain along Ligali Ayorinde Street, Victoria Island, contrary to and punishable under section 18 of the Lagos State Environmental Sanitation Law 2001''.

Mr A.L.A. Akinbola, ExxonMobil's lawyer appeared on behalf of the chief executive and the management of the company. He told the court that the company was served with the court summons last Thursday and so did not have the opportunity to discuss with his clients. He therefore asked for a short adjournment. The prosecution informed the court that there was need for the court to know if there was any person at the hearing who represented the management. At that juncture, Mr Emma Amadi the firm's general counsel and company secretary announced his appearance. The prosecutor Mr Bamishile did not object to the adjournment, he however asked the court to advise Mobil to clear the human waste ''because if the situation is allowed to remain as it is while the case drags, it has the potential of causing an epidemic''. The case was thereafter adjourned till Friday, November 12, 2004.

An attempt by Island News to solicit a response from the oil giant was met with silence. The firm's corporate affairs official Rita Umoren who had earlier promised to respond to questions via email, was conveniently said to have travelled and no other official agreed to speak on the embarrassing matter.




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