Tank farms in residential areas: Disasters waiting to happen

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By Bimbo Mayegun

On the hot afternoon of January 24, 2018, the billows of smoke that emanated from a fire outbreak at Ijegun, Lagos, was a rude reminder that if immediate action is not taken, Nigeria could face a more devastating consequence of siting tank-farms in residential areas.

Although the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) lists over 80 depots scattered across the country, the bulk of functional and large-capacity tank farms are domiciled in Lagos. Most of them situated around Apapa, an area with high population concentration.

The case of Apapa is pathetic. A port enclave with a nice ambiance overlooking the Atlantic has become a flashpoint. Storage facilities are located precariously close to homes, schools, hospitals, banks, etc. Tankers loading fuel explode every now and then. The roads are deplorable, and residents are exposed to dangerous emissions that have adverse health effects daily. The condition of the area has caused so much loss to the nation economically, environmentally and socially. According to Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, Nigeria loses N140billion to Apapa gridlock weekly.

Those living close to storage facilities are in grave and ever-present danger. Some of these facilities store liquid petroleum gas(LPG), which is a mixture of propane and butane, which have an adverse effect on heart rhythm, causing cardiac problems. In particular, children in these areas are also exposed to respiratory diseases.

As our thirst for imported fuel persists in a nation that should boast of functional refineries and pipelines, we also seem to have lost all sense of regard for human life. We continue in our insensitivity, setting death traps from Apapa, Kirikiri, Satellite town and all the other small towns on the Atlantic coastline.

Residents of Ijegun area of Satellite Town saw life flash them in the face following the explosion that rocked a 6,000,000-litre capacity tank. Thankfully, no one died. However, these residents continually live in fear that the smallest insignificant spark could translate into losing their lives and properties.

Sadly, by May 2018, they will also commemorate the 10th anniversary of the famous Ijegun fire disaster that claimed the lives at least 100 people according to Nigerian Red Cross, destroyed 15 homes and dozens of vehicles, and saw young children trampled on as they charged out of school to safety.

What has changed is that, while the 2008 explosion was caused by a pipeline, a means considered safer than tank farms, the level of risk exposure currently being witnessed now, is capable of wiping out the entire area.

An eyewitness in the most recent occurrence said, “the luck we had was that the tank in question was near empty, while the surrounding tanks were also empty. Had there been products, the entire area would have been engulfed by the inferno.”

It has become a matter of exigency to immediately decongest these danger zones by investing in other locations that hold similar advantages and are not right in the middle of town.  If this is not done, it is only a matter of time before these stored combustible products turn residential areas into graveyards. Unthinkable, but true.

A few oil and gas companies have started looking at the future by considering the environment in siting oil storage facilities away from densely populated areas.

Recently, a private company in Nigeria, Petrolex decided to build its mega tank farm at Ibefun, several miles away from Lagos.  The commissioning of the 300 million-litre tank farm was publicised widely in the media and highly commended by stakeholders in the public sector. It is situated in an area strategically located and accessible through land and waterways. As of now, it is not very clear if this depot, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, is fully functional. It is expected to decongest Apapa traffic by about 60 per cent.

Similar investments by private sector players will no doubt reduce the likelihood of fire catastrophes.

Talking about fire catastrophes, in September 2017, not less than 4 people lost their lives as a vessel in the process of discharging its content into an NNPC depot in Apapa caught fire. Although it was reportedly besieged by hoodlums, both problems (of theft and explosion) could have been averted if the tank farm was not right in the eye of a residential area.

In February 2017 as well, about 25 vehicles were burnt following an explosion involving a tanker belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) at Apapa Oshodi expressway Lagos.

There was a massive explosion at a tank farm located in the Calabar Export Processing zone in October 2015. Many lives were lost.

In January 2013, an oil depot in Apapa was also hit by a major explosion. In October of the same year, huge explosions were reported to have been heard on Edmor Street, by Wilmer Crescent in Olodi, Apapa area when a local petroleum depot went up in flames, engulfing two buildings close by.

These calamities are preventable and should not happen in a country that has regard for standards and industrial ethics. It is high time we took a cue from the civilised world, since that is what we aspire to be.

The UK Health, Safety and Environment guideline for location and design of petroleum storage facilities says large tanks should be more than 15 meters from any other building. In Nigeria, the Department of Petroleum Resources(DPR) and other agencies should be more cautious in regulating the building of petroleum storage facilities.

The proliferation of tank farms in Apapa indicates a failure of regulation as large quantities of petroleum products are stored close to residences. This is a ticking bomb that environmental activists and concerned observers have been warning about for several years.

The latest fire disaster at Ijegun has only reinforced the urgent need for action.



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