This is not the first time that Rembo-Kotto has been the scene of an oil spill. On 21 June 2020, 20 barrels of hydrocarbons polluted the Missala River, near Lake Anengué, as documented in a 2021 report by Gabonese authorities. A leaky pipeline was identified as the source of the pollution.
The two incidents are far from isolated. Based on unpublished testimonies, confidential documents and data from environmental activist Bernard-Christian Rekoula, Investigate Europe and Disclose found that Perenco has been responsible for at least 17 cases of pollution in Gabon between March 2019 and May 2023. Each time, mangroves, forests or the ocean were impacted.
Nine of the 17 cases were investigated by Gabon’s directorate general for environment, an arm of the environment ministry, whose findings were compiled in a May 2021 report.The equivalent of at least 290 barrels were discharged into the environment between 2020 and spring 2021, the document stated.
The report also revealed that in 2021, the number of incidents increased in a specific 10sq km area south of Port-Gentil, the country’s economic hub. On 17 January that year, a pump at the Olendé CB-1 oil field spilled into a river, discharging 50 barrels of crude oil, the equivalent of 8,000 litres that “migrated towards the mangrove”. Despite the situation, Perenco took “no action to clean up the pollution”, the report claimed. Instead, Perenco said the leak had been caused by an “act of sabotage”. The explanation did not seem to convince the report’s authors who expressed “reservations given the difficulty and danger of intervening on [this] pump in operation,” due to the “toxic and deadly gas” it can release.
A few days later, a pipeline broke in the middle of a marine park. “The impacted area is estimated to be 200 square metres,” noted the experts. During their field trip, they discovered a third incident, revealed by traces of hydrocarbons near an oil well. Initially dug by Total in 1982, it was then bought by Perenco but never put into production. According to environmental activist Bernard-Christian Rikoula, now a refugee in France, the site was not productive enough so the two groups abandoned it to avoid the costs of plugging it, despite the risks for local populations.
“Every time there’s a disaster, Perenco conceals the damages and threatens local residents, telling them that they won’t be hired again if they raise the alarm,” the Perenco employee explains.
Before every clean-up, Perenco confiscates employees’ phones to avoid compromising photos or videos, claims Yves Onanga, a temporary worker who says he was dismissed in November 2022 after denouncing the company’s methods. He claims they were simply “digging holes to bury the oil sludge that had not been removed”.
In spite of Perenco’s alleged efforts to hide pollution, the impact of some incidents was so vast that they were observed from the sky. In Spring 2019, Gabon’s space agency (Ageos) identified several oil spills near the company’s rigs in the Atlantic Ocean. “They kept on pumping anyway, even though their aging system requires huge maintenance work,” an agency official explains. “Those responsible first denied before proceeding with repairs.” He reckons that around 1,000 barrels were released into the ocean in two days. In a bulletin published in January 2021, the agency’s engineers assessed that the oil slick spread from 10sq km to 85sq km in the second half of 2019. During that seven-month period, Ageos analysis identified a further six leaks that had occurred at sea. In 2020, the affected area covered 160sq km.
“We acknowledge that incidents relating to our activities have occurred in the past,” a Perenco spokesperson said. “An impact report shows they are localised and the effects of which have been limited due to the prevention and remedial methods put in place.” The company added that it could not comment on specifics while there are ongoing legal actions, but stressed that “malicious acts” on its facilities have been frequent.