The Ijegun oil pipeline disaster
The oil pipeline fire disaster that devastated parts of Ijegun in Lagos State in the early hours of July 4, once again, shows the level of negligence and low safety standards applied in the operation of the oil industry in the country.
The oil industry in Nigeria is operated in the crudest sub-standard manner. The result is the gross environmental pollution and frequent disasters that wreck havoc with a heavy toll on lives and properties every now and then.
The latest disaster, reportedly, left two people dead with many vehicles and shops burnt. More than twenty persons sustained various degrees of injuries. The inferno was contained by a combined team of the Lagos State and Federal Fire Services, with the support of the NNPC only after it had wrecked havoc.
Since October 1998 when a pipeline fire disaster killed over 1000 people in Jesse, Delta State, the country has recorded over a dozen pipeline disasters out of which, seven occurred in Lagos State alone while Abia and Delta States recorded two each. Nearly 2000 thousand people perished in the disasters, thousands suffered various degrees of injuries while many are permanently incapacitated. The environmental impact of the disasters on biodiversity cannot be quantified.
Worldwide, the oil industry is operated on approved international standards. There are strict rules and regulations guiding health, safety, and environment (HSE) that should be followed.
The procedures guiding oil exploration, exploitation, processing, distribution, and marketing are strictly regulated. This is because oil is a hazardous product and poses danger at every stage of its handling and operations. Disastrous accidents are rife if it is not properly handled. There is no separate standard that is meant for Nigeria. The same standards applied in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, USA or any other oil-producing country is what should apply in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. The NNPC and its joint-venture partners and contractors have unwittingly devised a Nigerian standard of handling and operating the oil industry. Weak laws and corruption have made it difficult to enforce the approved international standards.
As a result, the various activities that involve the handling of oil are apparently carried out without recourse to safety. The frequent oil pipeline disasters and oil tanker accidents on the highways underscore this fact.
The NNPC and its joint-venture partners cannot claim to be ignorant of what the standards require them to do as in other jurisdictions. Certainly, they know but because this is Nigeria, where lawlessness is the norm, the standards are not followed. This carelessness is costing the country so much in terms of human life and material resources.
When I heard that a caterpillar working on a road construction site caused the 2008 Ijegun pipeline fire disaster, the questions that ran through my mind were: Is there no map showing the network of NNPC pipelines in the area and across the country? If there are maps, were they not made available to the state governments and their agencies for information and precaution being the ones that carry out daily functions of governance? Is there no coordination between government agencies and the NNPC on matters related to road construction and urban expansion for purposes of safeguarding the pipelines?
If the NNPC has no maps of its pipeline distribution network, why not? How does the corporation monitor its pipelines? How does the public know about the pipelines around them? Who is to blame? Is it the NNPC or someone who by accident tampers with the pipelines? Are oil pipelines vandalized in other countries the way it is done in Nigeria? If not, why? Why are Nigeria’s oil pipelines always prone to vandalism and accidental damage? To what extent is an ordinary “mark” or “sign”, which millions of people have no idea what they mean enough to restrict encroachment on the pipelines?
The Ijegun pipeline is part of a network of pipelines running from Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos through FESTAC Town, Ijegun, Ikotun to Ogun Ogun State. The disaster is an eye-opener to the danger many residents living around the pipelines are exposed to. It shows that the issue at stake is more grave and worrisome than what we have seen so far.
What should worry about the government is that along the Ijegun and the other oil pipelines that crisscross the country, millions of people are ignorantly sitting on top of time bomb doing business. Buildings, shops, and even public schools have sprung up along what the NNPC routinely calls its “pipeline right-of-way”.
Were the people made to know and recognize the “pipeline right-of-way? If only the NNPC top officials who seat comfortably in their cozy offices know the “pipeline right-of-way”, how is that known to members of the public? On a major highway, for instance, the spot where pedestrians have right-of-way is usually marked by a zebra crossing.
Both the pedestrians and motorists know this and obey it. How many Nigerians know how to recognize NNPC’s“right-of-way” where hazardous pipelines have been laid? Do you abandon something as critical as oil pipelines unattended and still expect them to remain intact?
Oil pipelines are like high-tension electric cables. As a matter of fact, they are more dangerous. A collapsed electric cable accident would not likely cause as much damage as a burst pipeline fire would and yet development is not allowed under high-tension electric cables. For one thing, the cables are visible and people know that they pose danger. This contrasts with the oil pipelines, which in many places are underground, and there is nothing to show that they exist.
In 2008, as many as 100 innocent people perished in the Ijegun pipeline fire; hundreds were injured and properties worth millions of naira were destroyed. Most pathetic was the death of school children that were in their classes when the fire engulfed the area. The raging fire overwhelmed them and many were consumed in the stampede. The students of Ijegun Comprehensive High School and another primary school also suffered this fate. After that, no lessons were learned hence the latest disaster.
It is clear from the location of the schools that the NNPC was negligent in enforcing the “right-of-way” of its pipelines. If the corporation had resisted the location of the schools in the first place, the Lagos State Government would not have approved the sitting of the institutions atop the pipelines. The NNPC, in conformity with existing international rules and regulations, has
Units and departments responsible for monitoring the pipelines but who chose to be negligent. It is only after disasters occurred that they woke up from slumber to claim rights. Given the level of despoliation in the country, it is difficult to know how many schools; residential houses, shops and other activities that are carried out atop pipelines in different parts of the country.
How many millions of people are exposed to avoidable danger daily? Furthermore, the NNPC pipelines, in most cases, were not laid according to the approved international standards. They are easily vandalized because they are near the surface and not protected by concrete.
The former NNPC Group Managing Director, Abubarkar Lawal Yar’Adua, rightly acknowledged this at Ijegun when he said: “The drawing and laying of the NNPC right-of-way for petroleum products’ pipelines were below international standards”.
He went further to say, “I don’t know whether the drawing of the NNPC right-of-way for the burying of pipelines was good enough”. He added that the thinking of government officials when the pipes were laid was that people would not intrude into the “right-of-way”. This is naïve and smacks of lack of professionalism in the operation of the country’s oil industry.
Now that the harsh economic situations in the country coupled with lawlessness have forced people to encroach on the pipelines, what is the NNPC going to do? There is a potential disaster looming all over the country wherever the pipelines passed. Oil pipeline vandals are on the prowl. If the caterpillar did not burst the Ijegun pipeline in 2008, the school and the residents would still be there while hazardous oil flows under their feet without their knowledge.
The NNPC should carry out a complete overhaul of its pipeline protection system throughout the country. The network of pipelines should be mapped and made available to the state governments and other stakeholders. The pipelines should be monitored electronically.
There should be public enlightenment on how to recognize where pipelines are laid. The states should control development along NNPC pipelines right-of-way. People who have unknowingly settled on NNPC right-of-way should be relocated and compensated. People who have suffered death, pain, and injury or loss of property should be compensated by the NNPC for being careless and not adhering to approved international standards in the oil industry.