The oil industry in South Sudan has left a landscape pocked with hundreds of open waste pits, the water and soil contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals, including mercury, manganese and arsenic, according to four environmental reports obtained by The Associated Press.
The reports also contain accounts of “alarming” birth defects, miscarriages and other health problems among residents of the region, and soldiers who have been stationed there. Residents also describe women unable to get pregnant.
Abui Mou Kueth’s infant son, Ping, was born with six fingers on both hands, one stunted leg, a deformed foot and kidney swelling.
“I was shocked the first time I saw the baby,” she said, cradling him in her arms.
She said he was not able to breastfeed and needed special formula.
The AP obtained the reports and supporting documents from people with close knowledge of the oil operations, one of whom works in the industry. The reports have never been released publicly.
The reports, which date as far back as 2013, were presented to the oil companies and the South Sudanese Ministry of Petroleum, and Mining, but subsequently buried, according to four people with close knowledge of the oil operations and the documents.
All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety.
“South Sudan is running one of the dirtiest and poorest-managed oil operations on the planet,” said Egbert Wesselink, a former head of a European coalition of more than 50 nonprofit organizations focused on the effects of the country’s oil sector.
Wesselink worked on the oil fields in South Sudan before the country gained independence in 2011 and now works with PAX, a Dutch-based human rights organization.
“I don’t think there’s a single major industrial operation on Earth that’s getting away with this,” he said.
There has been no clear link established between the pollution and the health problems.
However, community leaders and lawmakers in the oil-rich areas in Upper Nile and Unity states — in the northeast and north of the country bordering Ethiopia and Sudan — accuse South Sudan’s government and the two main oil consortiums, the Chinese-led Dar Petroleum Operating Co and the Greater Pioneer Operating Co, of neglecting the issue and trying to silence those who have tried to expose the problem.
An AP reporter looking into the pollution and health issues was detained and questioned by government officials and government security forces working on behalf of the oil companies.
Neither company responded to multiple requests for comment on the reports, and did not answer detailed questions sent by e-mail and text message from the AP.
The reports show that the government and the oil companies have been aware for years that contamination from drilling could be causing severe health problems in the local population, but little has been done to clean up the mess, local residents said.
Promises by the government and the oil companies to tackle the pollution have repeatedly been broken, they said.
“People are dying of unknown diseases,” said Simon Ngor, a pastor with a church in Melut, a small village in the oil-rich area of Upper Nile State. “The oil company says they’re working on it, but I don’t think they actually are.”
The environmental and health problems are particularly damaging in South Sudan, a country that was only established nine years ago, and shortly after was torn apart by civil war and famine.