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Residents lament frequent illegal bunkering fire in Rivers

By Ann Godwin and Obinna Nwaoku, Port Harcourt
29 November 2021   |   3:05 am
With the dry season near the corner, residents in Rivers State are worried about their safety as well as their properties as a result of frequent fire outbreaks in the oil-rich state

With the dry season near the corner, residents in Rivers State are worried about their safety as well as their properties as a result of frequent fire outbreaks in the oil-rich state.
   
In the past, fire incidents were traceable to power surges, use of candles and carelessness, among others.

 
However, residents are currently grappling with a new wave of outbreaks caused by artisanal oil refining activities popularly called “Kpofire”.   
   
Kpofire, is simply the process of heating or cooking the crude to extract petroleum products.
 
One of such incidents occurred at Bonny/Bille/Nemeb jetty, which left four persons dead.  
 
The Guardian gathered that a woman became devastated after she lost her three children to the fire.  
   
It was learnt that the woman left the children inside the boat to buy something across because she could not carry the three children at the same time, but sadly, before her arrival, the boat, which was loaded with gallons of illegal crude caught fire and burnt the children beyond recognition.
 
Officers of the State Police command later recovered the skulls of three children and one adult from the rubble of the fire at the waterside.
   
Apart from the children, several others sustained injuries and were receiving treatment at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH).
   
It was also learnt that the surge in the illegal petroleum business has exacerbated the airborne particulate called soot according to reports from a technical team set up by the Rivers State government to unravel the cause of the black soot.
 
However, residents have continued to count their losses in these incidents as property worth millions of naira were destroyed. 
 
 
Secretary of  Etche anti-bunkering taskforce committee, Noble Nwugha, said the owner of the site, where the fire outbreak happened is a policeman from Ogoni and he does illegal oil refining at the site. 
 
Also, an eyewitness, Onyema attributed the inferno, which destroyed buildings and property worth millions of Naira in Rumuokoro community in Obio-Akpor Local Council, On  November 21, to illegal bunkering.

He said the inferno was caused by persons involved in bunkering activities in the compound. 

 
Similarly, in October this year, the bunkering business claimed over 20 lives in Rumuekpe Community in Emohua Local Council.
 
Also, 22 persons sustained degrees of burns as a result of the inferno.
   
It was gathered that the fire was caused by one of the cooking pots at the location of the oil refining activities whose pipe was interconnected to other pipes, which eventually exploded all over the place.
 
Commander of the local vigilante in Rumuekpe community, Frank Nwazimutor said four of the victims came from his village, adding that others were people who came to look for green pastures in the oil-rich community.
 
Nwazimutor, while expressing concerns over the incident in the community, blamed the lack of employment opportunities for the people by the government and the companies for the activities that left several persons dead.
   
Findings by The Guardian showed that the illegal oil business has been going on for years and has gained prominence in rural oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta region as the people felt neglected and abandoned by government and oil companies.
 
Some of them see bunkering as a poverty alleviation scheme for men, women, and children.
 
Sadly, the illegal business is thriving daily in the oil-rich city with ease as investigations showed that refined products are transported within and around the state uninterrupted under the watchful eyes of security agencies, who are allegedly in a symbiotic relationship with them. 
   
Eyewitnesses, who spoke during a visit to the fire scene at Isiokpo Street, D/line Port Harcourt, blamed officers of the Nigerian Army, the Police and the Navy, lamenting that they were aware of the illicit trade and its consequences but were adamant to act due to bribes.
 
According to witnesses, the officers come to the illegal dumpsites to collect their share.  
     
The inferno, which started at 8:30 p.m. on November 20, destroyed houses, shops, trucks used in loading petroleum products among others.
 
A resident, Mr. Samson Pepple, who lives near the burnt illegal site, said those involved in the illicit business use taxi to convey drums of diesel, fuel, kerosene to the complex at night, then in the morning, petroleum tankers come and load the products in their trucks and then go out to distribute”
 
Speaking with The Guardian, one of the artisanal refiners, who simply gave his name as Friday, said financial remittance is made every week to heads of the security agencies.
   
He said: “Most of all the dumpsites are owned by big men who get returns from us. I am not in the cooking section but we have people who cook the product, yes, I know the product is inflammable but that is the risky side of the job, we take risks to survive in this country.
 
“I take stock of products produced every day. We are not disturbed by security men because we are not close to living places and we settle them. The only time we hear they want to come to raid our dumpsites was when our Oga did not settle them on time”.

Also, the Emohua chapter of the Niger Delta Youth Movement (NDYM) has accused security agencies of aiding the illegality in Emohua Local Council.

 
Chairman of the Elele-Alimini Chapter of the group, Woka John, who made the allegation after a meeting with stakeholders in the area, revealed that a volunteer surveillance task force has commenced operations to ensure that bunkering is reduced in the area.
 
The state governor, Nyesom Wike, on November 22, alleged that the fight to stop oil theft has continued to fail because top-ranking officers of the military are deeply involved in it.
 
Meanwhile, the state government said, it has intensified efforts to stop the menace of artisanal refining and the soot ravaging the environment of Rivers State.
 
The State Commissioner for Energy and Natural Resources, Dr. Peter Medee, said: “We are collaborating with security to stop illegal bunkering. You know, anything oil and gas is on the exclusive list so we will not be able to have absolute power to do anything without the collaboration of the Federal agencies, which we are collaborating with them to see what we can do to stop the menace.”

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