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Why avoidable destruction, deaths from gas explosions persists

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Debris at Best Roof Gas plant, Barwa, Ipaga, Lagos.  PHOTO KINGSLEY JEREMIAH <br />

Although gas is used safely across the world for domestic and industrial purposes, in Nigeria, the Federal Government and private investors are endangering lives and property for avoidable reasons as the former pushes for increased domestic gas utilisation. In this report, KINGSLEY JEREMIAH reveals how weak regulations, lax enforcement, and crafty operators contribute to the continuous loss of lives and property during gas explosions.

Natural gas found in abundance in the country is gaining acceptance globally as fossil fuels, metamorphose into renewable energy. Either for heating, cooling, power generation, and transportation, replacing gas with Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), kerosene, coal or diesel is the desired option given the advantage of limited pollution and impact on the people and the environment.

But for victims of a gas explosion, the essential commodity is thus seen as a curse rather than a blessing. They see gas as a bomb trying to kill them, or destroy their property, and reoccurring explosions across the country have perpetrated this mindset.

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While millions remain agitated across the country and unsure of where the next gas explosion could happen, residents of Ipaja, Iju-Ishaga, and Abule Ado areas of Lagos, and families of victims killed in a gas explosion in Agbor, Delta State are living witnesses to the Federal Government’s inability to enforce safety regulations in the oil and gas sector, and the dastard manner in which private players jeopardise lives and property in the way they run gas businesses.

How NNPC Pipeline Wrecked Abule Ado Community
THE site of Abule Ado explosion, in Lagos State, where 23 people lost their lives, in addition to the destruction of property worth billions of naira in March last year, presents a picture-perfect example of how debilitating a gas explosion can be.

From The Guardian’s investigation of explosions at gas facilities in Agbor, Delta State, Barwa, and Iju-Ishaga in Lagos State, the explanation by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), that the Abule Ado explosion was caused by a gas cylinder hit by a truck, simply does not add up. Indications that the NNPC pipeline, which travels through the community caused the explosion were obvious.

While a BBC documentary pointed to a leak from an NNPC pipeline, the facility is currently covered up in the bush such that even if another explosion were to happen in that environment, a leakage may not be easily noticed until it leads to an explosion. This development further questions NNPC’s commitment to safety standards.

A report produced by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), exclusively read to The Guardian, by the spokesperson of the agency, Paul Osu, claimed that the Abule Ado explosion was caused by a ruptured pipeline, despite the hundreds of billions of naira yearly allocated for gas pipeline repairs.

It would be recalled that between August 2017 and August 2018, about N125b was spent on repairs and maintenance of the NNPC pipeline network. The corporation also spent a total of N41.98b on pipeline repairs and management costs in the first half of 2020.

What is disheartening to many is the fact that despite the massive destruction caused by the explosion in the community, there are no signs that the NNPC or the community has learnt any lessons from the incident. Buildings are still seating on the right of way, and businesses, including small-scale gas retailers, still dispense their products on the right of way. The absence of safety signs is also obvious. Navigating from Badagry Expressway inward Abule Ado, debris from the explosion still lie over about 100, 000 square meters of land. The destruction was different from the incident in any of the other gas explosions sites. Although the other areas, especially Baruwa was in the heart of the town, the impact from a tanker, which had about 23 tonnes was almost 50 times lesser compared to the scenario in Abule Ado, which NNPC attributed to just a gas cylinder. Unless a bomb was planted in the location, only pressure from a pipeline couldn’t generate such devastations.

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Most people in the community have attempted the renovation of their buildings, while others are either too distraught to initiate any activity or are plagued by a lack of finance. For instance, buildings around the Nigerian Tyre Market are still in derelict condition same as the kitchen utensils market, a part of the trade fair complex, which was completely razed down like the Bethlehem Girls’ College School, an educational facility owned by the Catholic Church. The principal and students of the girls’ school were among the first 15 deaths recorded during the incident.

A gas retail outlet sits on the right of way around an NNPC pipeline in Abule Ado, Lagos.<br />PHOTO KINGSLEY JEREMIAH<br />

No response was received by The Guardian (as at the time of filing the report) after the Group General Manager Group Public Affairs Division, NNPC, Kennie Obateru, was contacted over the root causes of the Abule Ado gas explosion, and why the right of way is in its current state, despite allocation for pipeline maintenance.

The Baruwa Gas Explosion
IN the Ipaja area of Lagos, still lies debris from Thursday, October 8, 2020 gas explosion, which occurred at a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) plant belonging to Best Roof Gas. Situated about 200 meters away from the company’s petrol station, in Baruwa, Alimosho, the plant had been serving consumers in the area for years. Until the accident happened, the gas plant operated from a small plot of land bordering Unity and Morakinyo streets and seated directly beside a church, as well as several small shops and kiosks.

Despite being sited and built in a location that appeared to breach guidelines set by the DPR, the facility operated freely for years, and the regulatory agency told The Guardian that the plant was only granted approval to construct (even though gas plants are not meant to be sited in such densely populated areas).
  
Residents of the neighbourhood are still peeved by the incident, which razed down property worth billions of naira. One of such persons is Madam Juliana, who said: “I don’t want to talk about it, I have not recovered from the traumatic experience of that incident.”

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Juliana, who is in her 60s told The Guardian: “You may have to find Alhaji Wahab, he owns most of the property around the gas station, and he lost some of his tenants,” she said while shutting her gate.

Wahab, a 75-year-old contractor, worked tirelessly during his youth to secure a befitting future for his three wives, and eight children. He invested the proceeds of the several contracts that he won in real estate. Unfortunately, the Baruwa gas explosion razed all his property, killed some of his tenants while others are still in the hospital fighting for their lives.

Wahab, who now lives in a mosque around the area with his family, during an interaction with The Guardian, broke down and lamented: “I have lost everything I worked for, and it all happened like a dream.

“It was around 4 pm and I had left the children for the mosque for a special prayer. I came out from the mosque because of the noise, and the people who were running helter-skelter, shouting fire, fire,” he recalled.

Wahab’s saving grace was the quick reaction of his children, who evacuated the rest of the family from the building. Unfortunately, his tenant, an elderly man, and his son were trapped in the inferno.

“We are presently staying at a house being used by students of Islamic Studies,” Wahab said adding, “We are helpless. I lost over N700 million as the fire affected three buildings and 11 shops… Feeding has been really difficult. The turnaround in fortune has not been easy. For someone that gave out to other people to end up being the one, receiving isn’t a good thing. It has been a very depressing experience. I can no longer live up to my duties as a husband and father. I can no longer feed my family and pay school fees. How many people would I explain my situation to?” He cried.

Bamidele Olushola, the cleric, who presided over Folem Church International, which was immediately sealed by the state government, said property worth about N32m were lost to the inferno, and one of the church members still battling for her life as a result of burns that she sustained during the explosion.

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“It affected the church auditorium. The whole ceiling, the pillars, and even the windows were burnt. The damage done is estimated to be over N32m,” he said.

Iju-Ishaga Gas Explosion
THE Iju-Ishaga gas explosion incident of September 24, 2020, happened after a tanker bearing over 20 tonnes of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) exploded and the vehicle was torn into two killing the driver and a few people within the vicinity of the incident, while also injuring 30 adults, and destroying 23 buildings (including X and Y Event Centre and a plank market), and 15 vehicles.

Before the incident happened, a trade rift was brewing between Leke Ajayi’s Mana Fuels Ltd, and High-Class Standard Gas Limited, owned by his former schoolmate, which is involved in hauling gas from depots to retail plants.

On September 22, 2020, a tanker belonging to Talabi’s loaded product from a NIPCO facility in Apapa, Lagos, to deliver to Ajayi’s Manna Fuels Ltd, but Ajayi rejected the product, as the seal on the tanker had allegedly been broken, indicating that the product had been tampered with.

Ajayi, who alleged that he had lost tonnes of product in a similar fashion in the past, stressed that the development was negatively affecting his balance sheet, hence the need for him to watch out to see where the “leakages” were coming from.

But the drama that played out between the loading of the product at Apapa, and its arrival at his Iju-Ishaga outlet (with content less than 23 tonnes) left him without a doubt that something was fishy.

After an alleged broken gauge seal on the tanker, road diversion, and under-delivery convinced Ajayi that something was amiss with the consignment, a mechanical problem and faulty tyre developed subsequently. Matters got to a head when the original driver fled.
After the faulty tyre was fixed, the inflated tyre exploded and hit the tank. “Immediately the gas started gushing out, and in the confusion, the truck driver attempted stopping the gas flow with rags, while an attendant at the gas station ran for a fire extinguisher. The driver thereafter ran into the vehicle and ignited the truck, which immediately caught fire as gas ran through the truck’s exhaust. It exploded, killing the truck driver and the attendant, who was heading close with a fire extinguisher,” Ajayi said.

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The pressure from the fire cut the truck into two, and one part flew into the swamp while the second part travelled with fire into the community. Indeed, it was a disaster, with unimaginable impact and losses on people and properties.

A list sighted by The Guardian had about 100 names – people who died or sustained different injuries.

But High-Class Gas (registered in 2016 by the DPR to transport LPG) accused Mana Fuels Ltd of complicity in the explosion.

A manager at the company, Seye Aderanti, in an email to The Guardian narrated the incident thus: “On Monday, September 21, 2020, Manna Gas engaged our truck to pick up LPG (hereinafter referred to as “the products”) from a nominated terminal at Apapa, Lagos, for onward delivery and offload at the Manna Gas facility at Iju Ishaga, Lagos. The product was truck-loaded into the truck on Tuesday, 22 September 2020, and arrived at Manna Gas facility at Iju Ishaga, Lagos, on the same day, September 22, 2020.

“Upon the arrival of the truck at the Manna Gas facility at Iju Ishaga, Lagos, the truck was parked in the premises of Manna Gas to offload the product, but the management of Manna Gas refused to offload the products on an unsubstantiated and frivolous claim that the driver of the truck detoured and that part of their product had been stolen by the driver of the truck,” the group said.

High-Class Gas accused Manna Fuels Ltd of forcing the truck driver to drive the truck out of the premises, adding that the truck got stuck and sunk in the debris of bad ground on Wednesday, September 23, 2020, as Manna Fuels Ltd, without notifying or obtaining consent, permission or approval, inappropriately towed out the loaded truck with a payloader which led to severe damages to various components/parts of the truck, which eventually led to the unfortunate explosion.

But while the companies continue to trade blames, victims of their “action” are still counting their losses.

Misery In Wake Of Agbor Gas Explosion
ON January 23, 2020, a gas plant described as illegal by the DPR went up in flames in Agbor, Delta State. After a visit to the site, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa confirmed that four persons died during the incident, and no fewer than 11 persons were hospitalised.

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While many believe that the casualty figure was played down as many of those hospitalised never made it out, the number of victims rose to about 21 as a result of narrations by a few homes affected by the incident.

Weeks after the incident, the scars are still visible, and the impact, hard-hitting. Apart from what remains of the gas plant, the charred remains of surrounding farmlands and residential structures as one moves from John Siwekwu Street, into Ken Kenny Street, paint a picture of gloom, especially for the newly homeless.

One of the victims, Osai, still wishes what befell him was a dream. He lost his house, wife, and son to the explosion. “Look at my house, I don’t need to tell you anything because you can see for yourself,” Osai said.

“I lost about three persons in one day. I have told them everything I need to tell them and I don’t think there is anything I want to tell you anymore,” said Cletus, a man in his 70s, as he tried hard to dismiss The Guardian from taking him back memory lane.

Weak Regulation, Crafty Marketers, And Wacky Value Chain
FOR a gas station to be established, its promoters/operators require a license from the DPR. Every gas facility, including trucks used in transporting gas, must be licensed by the DPR. But after the Agbor explosion, the DPR blamed gas explosions and fire accidents in the country on the lack of compliance with safety guidelines by retail outlets. The enforcement of these safety guidelines is part of the statutory responsibility of the DPR.

Experts are united in their submissions that the explosions in Baruwa, Iju-Ishaga and Agbor were all avoidable, a development that points to failing enforcement of simple safety regulations, and a system that habours operators that can’t commit to safety standards, especially since most of them have been in business for years without being sanctioned

After a cursory look at the scene, a quality assurance specialist, who is the Managing Director, Mudiame International Limited, Prof. Sunny Eromosele, concluded that the LPG value chain in the country is faulty.

According to him, most gas stations have failed quality assurance tests, as most trucks used in hauling gas do not meet global standards, especially those fabricated in the country.

“There is engineering failure and that must be corrected. Locally fabricated facilities for the LPG value chain are failing. The facilities, including the trucks, can’t stand the quality test,” Eromosele said.

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Unfortunately, these facilities still find their way into the system, either as a result of the failure of the regulator, or the craftiness of marketers, who do everything to remain in business.

Integrity Of NNPC Pipelines Questionable
EXPERTS, including the Managing Director of Port Harcourt-based Mudiame International Limited, Sunny Eromosele, told The Guardian that lack of integrity test on NNPC pipelines, the age of the infrastructure, failure of material and calibration, as well as the activities of vandals were some of the factors responsible for reoccurring explosions.

Expressing doubts over the NNPC’s desire to end the menace, he questioned further: “Where are the results of the investigations from the previous explosions? I think the government and the ministry responsible should put a policy in place; a deliberate policy to assess pipelines’ integrity. Like human beings, pipelines do not last forever, therefore the periodic investigation is needed. The pipelines were built a long time ago, and they are already failing,” Eromosele stated.

He equally noted that all these disasters were avoidable if the pipelines were tested, monitored and regularly maintained in line with the industry’s best practices.

“Vandals don’t gain anything from a gas pipeline, so they won’t likely break it, what we are seeing are results of system failure. There is a need for proper planning to monitor the integrity of the pipelines. That way, we can mitigate, or reduce the rate of explosion and pollution that is taking place in the country,” he said.

Failing Enforcement Strategies
ON January 28, 2020, the DPR in Abuja, embarked on a clampdown exercise to dislodge illegal sellers of LPG, especially those dispensing gas from cylinder-to-cylinder. The team departed the DPR office in the Jabi area of Abuja and headed to Gwarinpa with armed paramilitary officers. The convoy drove into an open field in Gwarimpa, where hundreds of gas retailers jostled for customers. It was a bad day for them as the vehicles arriving were not regular customers. Arrests were made in that location and others in Wuse and Garki areas.

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Altogether, the agency, which has been saying that Nigerians are endangering and short-changing themselves by patronising illegal retailers, closed down 26 illegal shops and arrested 22 traders that were involved in refilling LPG from a cylinder.
But five days after the clampdown, The Guardian observed that the traders returned to business.

One of the traders, Chidi, who has been in gas retailing business for over five years, said he uses proceeds from the business to feed his immediate and extended family.

“There are no jobs out there. So, I started this trade after graduation because I was tired of waiting to secure a white-collar job. I think the government needs to support us instead of going after us. How many people have money for big LPG plants?” Chidi asked.

Why Explosion Are Rampant
REACTING to the recurring gas explosions, the spokesperson of the DPR, Osu pointed out that the Abule Ado explosion was caused after a truck on transit rode over a ruptured pipeline and triggered the blast, while the Baruwa explosion happened during the transloading of LPG from a tanker to another tanker.

Buildings destroyed by gas explosion in Agbor, Delta State. 

“The incident in Iju Ishaga happened because of an LPG truck that was in transit to discharge product. The tyre of the truck burst causing an accident,” Osu said.

Speaking on the Baruwa incidents, Osu said: “The plant in Baruwa was offered approval to construct a gas facility. The approval to construct does not translate to a licence to operate. The facility had some lapses that needed to be addressed, hence it was an illegal facility. They were transloading LPG from a tanker to another tanker. That is a very unsafe practice.”

Asked why the DPR would approve businessmen to construct gas facilities in city centres, Osu said no such was not the case but explained that existing cases happen when development catches up with some of the plants.

He expressed regrets that accidents are usually triggered by people, who fail to handle gas properly, noting that the development led to the recent launch of the Minimum Industry Safety Standard for Downstream Operations (MISTDO), which would ensure that operators and handlers are trained and retrained.

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Osu also noted that the agency is working in collaboration with the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) to ensure that only road-worthy trucks are licensed to carry products, stressing that there must be synergy between agencies, especially the town planners, fire service, police, and others.

Asked why the DPR has not closed down most illegal gas facilities, Osu appealed to Nigerians to assist the agency with information on any facility that they suspect was not properly located in their areas, stressing that the agency cannot be everywhere, but has clamped down on a significant number of illegal facilities that were discovered during its routine surveillance.

He also admitted that even if the department closes down any facility, it lacks the power to prosecute offenders as that remained the work of security agencies who are statutorily empowered to do so.

Legal Actions Prescribed In Petroleum Act
SECTION Four of the Petroleum Act states that, “no person shall import, store, sell or distribute any petroleum products in Nigeria without a licence granted by the minister,” except the storage, sale or distribution of not more than 500 litres of kerosene, and such other categories of petroleum products as may be exempted.

While Subsection Five adds that the “minister may, by order, published in the Federal Gazette delegate the power to grant licences under this section to such persons or authorities in a state as he may deem fit,”

Subsection Six expressly added: “Any person who does, without the appropriate licence, any act for which a licence is required under this section shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2, 000 or both, and, in addition, the petroleum products in respect of which the offence was committed shall be forfeited.

Govt’s Plans For Cylinder-related Issues Buried In Politics
BEFORE now, gas cylinders were not owned by the consumers but exchanged with the dealers. In that case, the cylinders underwent maintenance, or were destroyed when they expired. But that system has collapsed. Sadly, up till today, many Nigerians are not aware that gas cylinders do expire, and that they are as dangerous as bombs when expired.

In 2016, when Ibe Kachikwu held sway as the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, a plan was designed, headed by a special adviser to the minister, Brenda Ataga, to address some of the challenges in the retail value chain.

Under the plan, the government signed up with a few manufacturers of gas cylinders to ensure that the country has enough gas cylinders. The plan also included encouraging investment/establishing of standard LPG plants, while a system was designed to engage all small-scale retailers across the streets.

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Still, under the plan, the small retailers were to be provided with cylinders and incentives for safer LPG plants, where customers are offered products in cylinders, which they were to return for an exchange each time they refill. That plan has been discarded.

In announcing that there would be new value chain for LPG, Ataga on May 21, 2019, said that consumers would no longer own gas cylinders, adding that with the new development, consumers would be provided with new cylinders free of charge to remove expired and unsafe cylinders from households across the country.

Ataga further said that the government had identified 380, 000 micro-distribution centres in all local councils across the country, and have already issued some licenses to beneficiaries.

She explained that the micro-distribution centres would contribute to doing away with illegal, and unsafe outlets, as well as standardise the reselling of gas, as kerosene and firewood sellers would be converted to LPG resellers in their vicinities.

This plan, which would have provided short-term succour and contribute to sanitising LPG retail business, is currently experiencing a lull.

Timipre Sylva, who replaced Kachikwu retained Ataga in the system as a special technical adviser.

While she insists that the plan is in the right direction and that it would start with 12 pilot states, she could not, however, assure of the take-off time, maintaining that the COVID-19 pandemic affected the plan, which is being fine-tuned and would soon commence nationally.

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