‘This is the final straw’: Gabonese activists outraged at yet another oil spill by Perenco

‘This is the final straw’: Gabonese activists outraged at yet another oil spill by Perenco

Politics

A leak was detected on April 28 in a petrol terminal run by the French-British petrol company Perenco near Port-Gentil, the economic capital of Gabon. The company, which has already been accused of serious environmental violations, has insisted the leak is under control. But our Observer says that the leak is a serious pollution risk.  

The Cape Lopez petrol terminal, located a few kilometres north of Port-Gentil on Mandji Island, is the largest in Gabon. The site is run by Perenco, the largest producer of petrol in this central African nation. 

Late in the morning of April 28, Perenco located a leak in a tank in Cape Lopez containing 50,000 cubic metres of crude oil, or 300,000 barrels. 

Aerial images taken the morning after the spill by activist Bernard Christian Rekoula show the extent of the damage – two storage tanks are surrounded by a huge pool of crude oil contained in a basin. A vacuum truck is covered with oil and the Atlantic Ocean is only a few metres away. 





‘Oil spilled over an area the size of three football fields’

Bernard Christian Rekoula says there is a real risk of pollution.  

We first noticed, on Friday morning, that there were strong gas fumes, of the type produced by oil, several kilometres in every direction from the site. We went to a fishing village near Cape Lopez. The villagers told us that they had been evacuated around 11pm on Thursday. The electricity was cut and they were told not to light fires, cigarettes or anything else due to the explosion risk.  

I flew my drone over the site and, from the footage, I could see that there was a defective oil tank. You can clearly see where the leak is. The oil spill covers an area the size of three football fields and is at least a metre and a half to two metres deep.

‘No marine pollution’ identified, says Perenco

In a statement published in French on April 29, Perenco said that its teams immediately started pumping but that the leak “increased” and that the oil spilt into “two containment basins built for this purpose.”

“All of the petrol was contained in the containment basins and no marine pollution has been identified at this moment,” the company said in the statement. 

Perenco said that they had declared the situation one of “force majeure”, which removes liability for natural catastrophes that may affect business.

The company said it had called on the force majeure clause in its contracts in order to “secure the installations and prevent any environmental damage”. The company also said that there would be an investigation into what had caused the leak. 

Rekoula, however, wasn’t convinced by the company’s response:

Essentially, we saw that Perenco had installed what they call retaining walls, which are nothing more than mounds of sand that stand two metres high. But you can see from the photos that petrol has spilled over, overflowing the containment basins. 

Contrary to the reassuring and politically correct messages from the director of Perenco, which were parroted by the authorities, we sounded the alarm. It’s rainy season and it is sure that this bassin could fill up and spill into the ocean. 

On Saturday, April 30, the general director of Gabonese petrol visited the site on Cape Lopez. He said that the “situation was under control”.

But while the company and the authorities say that they are carrying out petrol pumping operations to clean up the spilt oil, Rekoula wanted to know where the pumped petrol is being stocked, adding that the “crude oil is still there”.

‘Perenco needs to be penalised’

Perenco is already being sued by several NGOs. The company was placed under formal investigation in Gabon in July 2021 for pollution and petrol damage to rivers, lakes and the ocean.  

Rekoula says that this latest incident “has just added fuel to the fire”:

It’s important to know that this site was built by Elf [Editor’s note: A French oil company which has since been merged with Total] back in the day. So the site is more than fifty years old. When Perenco bought the site, they should have carried out repairs, bringing it up to standard. That wasn’t the case. Today, Perenco is busy blaming others. 

This is the final straw. Perenco needs to be internationally penalised. And institutions need to help us to get this company to abide by international standards. 

Even when the Gabonese government and Perenco are forced to admit that an incident has taken place, at least somewhat, they still don’t tell us the source of the pollution. In their statement, they talked about a leak, but they didn’t explain the reasons for it. It can’t continue like this. 

Alarm sounded in 2020 after petrol spills

Gabon is one of the largest producers of petrol on the African continent, producing nearly 220,000 barrels of petrol a day. 

Owned by one of the richest families in France, the Perrodo family, Perenco specialises in optimising petrol wells that have been previously exploited. The company is often considered opaque, with strong links to the Gabonese government. 

In 2020, residents of the petrol field near Étimboué in western Gabon spoke out against Perenco’s practices. Photos taken by residents documented numerous oil spills. Residents along with NGOs said that the company’s structures were dilapidated and poorly maintained. 

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