By Tife Owolabi
YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - A large oil spill near Nigeria's Brass facility, run by ENI, has spread through the sea and swamps of the oil producing Niger Delta region, local residents and the company said on Monday.
ENI said it was not yet possible to determine the cause of the spill.
There are hundreds of leaks every year from pipelines that pass through the delta's creeks, damaging the environment and the profits of oil companies including ENI and Royal Dutch Shell, especially when production has to be deferred.
Vast stretches of the delta's unique mangrove swamps are blackened and dead from oil pollution.
"During loading operations on a tanker on November 27, an oil spill in the sea was seen. Operations were immediately suspended and resumed only after it was verified that the vessel's structures were not damaged and were not leaking," the company said in an emailed statement.
Nigerian legislators are considering a law to impose new fines on operators responsible for oil spills, a measure that could land major foreign companies with penalties running into tens of millions of dollars a year.
Francis Clinton Tubo Ikagi, chairman of the Odioama fishing community in Bayelsa, where a large part of the Niger river fans out through creeks into the Atlantic, told journalists on the scene that he saw a large oil slick on November 20.
"I saw a very thick layer of crude oil on the river," he said. "The community is affected seriously. Our women and men whose main livelihood source is fishing are complaining bitterly to us that the whole river is full of oil."
Many oil spills are caused by theft and pipeline sabotage, a crime committed daily in the Niger Delta, where millions live in poverty. A number of spills are also caused by loading accidents or decrepit infrastructure.
Oil companies are required to fund the clean-up of each spill and usually pay compensation to local communities affected, if it was clearly the company's fault.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes in Milan; writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)