Uncontrolled increase in the number of fuel silos in Apapa could spell doom for residents, nobody is sure when the next explosion would rock their world, writes BENNETT OGHIFO
The multiple explosions at the fuel dump in Lagos, last week, mirror the explosions and the ricochet caused by detonated bombs at the Ikeja Cantonment on January 27, 2002.
Both blasts had similar effects, except that the exact number of deaths in last week’s explosions are still unknown. Like the Ikeja bomb blasts, glass windows of buildings in residential estates within the area were shattered and those farther from the site shook violently, causing families and workers to panic.
Most disasters occur from incidents that could have been avoided. If anticipated, adequate response plans can be made. But often enough, such plans are left to providence.
Fuel of any type is highly inflammable, and some like petrol and gas explode with dire consequences causing collateral damage to areas beyond their immediate location. For instance, there was scarcity of kerosene and a teenager tried to light a fire using petrol from her father’s reserves. She was only able to tell how the flame licked her clothes off three days later when she regained full consciousness, punctuating the tale with groans from her 80 degree burns. Also, when the petrol fires in Jesse, Delta State and Ejigbo, Lagos State happened, it was just people and structures close to the burst pipes that caught fire.
Families that reside in Apapa, where most of the fuel tank farms in Lagos State are located, live in trepidation daily, expecting the worst someday. “Nobody can wish away the possible outbreak of fire from any one of the several tank farms that line the Oshodi-Apapa expressway or those on the Ijora-Apapa route. I fear for those who reside in Apapa and the environs,” said Yemi Oladokun, an estate developer who resides in a high-profile estate in Lekki.
Residents of Apapa and businesses operating around the seaports have on several occasions appealed to the federal government to prevail on the oil marketers to relocate their tank farms from their backyard to no avail because the owners are usually very influential people in the society, said Oladokun.
Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola, who visited the scene of the recent explosion said it was one too many and prescribed immediate action to forestall future occurrence.
He called on the Federal Government to plan to relocate such high-risk facilities in the State from residential areas.
Menacing Fuel Dumps
In the past, storage of petroleum products in huge petroleum products silos was reserved for oil multinationals with the competence in the management of the volatile tank farms. But then things changed in 1998 with the libralisation of fuel import trade. As fuel shortages grew in magnitude in the mid-1990s, the federal government was compelled to open up the business of fuel importation to more private sector operators. This led to increased investment in depots and facilities in and around the Apapa seaports.
With increasing demand for tank farm space, several warehouses along the Apapa road stretch were demolished. However, the construction of fuel depots was done without conducting environmental impact assessment studies and in outright disregard to the safety and wellbeing of the residential estates already in the neighbourhood.
Interestingly, owners of these tank farms live in far away Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki, said Chinedu Nwokolo, a shipping agent with a major line who also resides in Apapa. “The owners did not construct them to the standards the Department of Petroleum Resources prescribed because they were constructed by businessmen who wanted to take advantage of the fuel importation regime and the inability of the nation’s refineries to function properly. They know that when the refineries start operations they will be out of business. So, why spend so much money building something that conforms to mandatory safety measures.”
DPR guidelines stipulate that fuel depots must be far away from high density residential areas; should be close to deep waterways, of which the water body must be above 7.5 metres; and the soil texture must be hard enough to carry the basement of the tank, which must be buried deep into the earth so that it does not shift or collapse.
DPR also stipulates that the tanks must be 15 metres apart with a 5-metre concrete wall constructed around each of them and they must rest on a concrete floor. The loading gantry, according to the Department, must be 30m away from the tanks.
In respect of fire-fighting preparedness plan, the DPR stipulates that each tank must have a thousand metric ton capacity water hydrant to which is connected a water sprinkler that should be installed on its top. This equipment would be handled by well-trained fire fighting personnel and that there should be enough ventilation in each tank to control pressure changes as well as thunder arrestors.
Lack of Emergency Measures
But according to Patrick Adenusi, a safety expert, the tank farm owners ignore most of these requirements thus putting the lives of families in their neighbourhood in danger. “The emergency preparedness plan in the event of any emergency in that tank farm area is zero. There will be no ship left in Nigeria waters if fire breaks out there. The current fire service we have does not have the equipment to fight any fire outbreak there, neither do the tank farm owners,” he said.
He was worried that even the National Emergency Management Agency, which is allocated funds annually, does not monitor these tank farms. “The first step to emergency management is taking preventive measures. The tank farms are a disaster waiting to happen because the whole of Apapa, Ajegunle, Ijora and others around will not survive it, as the explosion of one tank alone can wreck untold havoc.”
Adenusi said he prays daily that nothing should happen at the farms. “If any of those tanks bust and the fuel spills on top of the water there will be disaster because all those ships and their cargo at the dock stand the risk of being destroyed. So, the NEMA, fire service department, the ports, and federal government should ensure that we have the capacity to avert and control a disaster.”
Responding to a disaster, he said, would depend on the response time because if it comes late then the risk would increase. “If fire breaks out there, we will need to appeal to the global community for help.” He reasoned that the way the tanks are clustered would make them vulnerable. “If fire occurs at the back, I don’t think any Nigerian fire fighter will take the risk of driving to the back to fight it because they don’t have the equipment.”
Interestingly, government is not oblivious of the danger lurking in these tank farms, but it needs the political will to prevent a possible tragedy. Members of the House of Representatives Committee on Petroleum Downstream took a hard look at the proliferation of the tank farms and condemned both their location and construction. The tank farms, the law maker concluded, fall below standards recommended by the DPR, and vowed to recommend their relocation but that was the last anyone heard from them.
Regardless, they saw the clear and present danger and shifted some of the blame on the Lagos State Government for not enforcing environmental laws. “You can’t even go into some of the ancient tank farms that we saw. We are even asking what the Lagos State government is doing with their environmental laws that you see a tank farm and you cannot put your foot down,” chided the chairman of the committee, Hon. Clever Ikisikpo.
Condemning the location and soil texture, he said, “Those of us who are not from the riverine areas cannot even go in; you might fall down and get drowned. So, what are we talking about? We need standards and believe me, we are going to write our report. You are deceiving yourself if you believe that we can’t pull your tank farm from where they are because this is committee work that we have come to do and we are going to do the right thing.”
Former Director, DPR, Billy Agha once acknowledged that the Department is aware of the problem and could solve it but observed that it is “operating under a harsh environment. All the refineries are down because they are still in the hands of government, but if the private sector is involved, they will provide better management and reduce the crippling bureaucracy that is common with government agencies.”
The petroleum pipelines that supply products to the refineries, he said, have not been changed for over 20 years, saying that as long as these problems continue the country would not have an efficient refinery that would help to reduce the patronage of tank farms. However the DPR, he added, has stopped issuing of licenses for the construction of new tank farms around Apapa.
Former Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Odein Ajumogobia reportedly said the uncontrolled growth in the number of tank farms is an embarrassment to the country and blamed it on low capacity to invest in new refineries. He also blamed it on the inability of the nation’s refineries to function optimally such that the nation depends on imported petroleum products. “We are the only member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Country which still imports most of its domestic refined products.”