18 January 2014, Lagos – There is always a nagging fear that something would go wrong someday to cause unquantifiable disaster at the highly inflammable petrol tank farms that stretch along the Apapa waterfront. Even the owners of the farms harbor this fear but sigh in relief each day it did not happen. They are lucky to feel that way because they live far away in Ikoyi or victoria island and would probably hear of the disaster as news breaks. However, those who live just outside the perimeter fence of the tank farms and, who battled without success to stop the construction of the first petrol silo on the first farm are not that lucky.
Residents of the low density beachland and Julius Berger estates built their homes and raised their families there before the investors brought a threatening danger to their neighbourhood. first, these residents were scared, as they still are, but they soon got used to fear and resigned themselves to fate. it is their home and, so they made personal and collective survival plans on how to outrun raging fire. they perform mental fire drills continually. They keep watch for the faintest sign of smoke from across their fence. the movement of every family is known by every member of that family and children in the german school within the beachland estate are taught fire drills by the school, and by their mothers. Nobody loves this lifestyle, particularly when they are unsure of the magnitude of the fire when it is ignited. People believe it is a matter of when, citing the massive destruction caused last week by the explosion of a tanker bearing a mere 33,000 litres of premium motor spirit (petrol) as a test case. The federal and lagos state governments must show leadership in this matter to keep citizens safe at all times. it is their responsibility.
Fire experts say unlike flood water that gets to the ankle before it builds up enough to drown its victims, fire creeps up on unsuspecting victims. Like a mean warrior, it sends up smoke to cut off the oxygen link before it burns. Fire does not kill; it is the smoke that kills. Thus, families know they must invest in breathing apparatus; oxygen masks and cylinders as well as fire resistant suits in addition to fire retardants/extinguishers. The air those who live close to tank farms breathe is usually tainted with the smell of petrol. According to experts, this means this inflammable spirit is close by and that it can explode, if ignited, like bomb, spreading and claiming more victims in the process.
Those who live in mortal fear of being burnt in their sleep or while going about their businesses have their homes and offices just across the road or fence from the deadly fuel laden silos on the tank farms that stretch from the Sunrise Bus Stop to almost the end of Olorogun Michael Ibru Boulevard (former Creek Road).
For instance, the developers of two residential estates, Beachland and Julius Berger, off Sunrise Bus Stop on the Mile II-Apapa stretch, were attracted by the serene environment and the waterfront. They built their homes and set up a boat club, from where they take boat rides into the creeks and up to the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean for sport. For them, it was and still is the good life, only that the once beautiful water is polluted by oil firms and have to work their noses to be able to take in oxygen.
The estates are of international standards and were built to the tastes of the high class residents. They have the best facilities and the asking price of a plot of land in the Beachland Estate is about N100 million.
According to an Estate Surveyor, Okey Nwainokpo, “Nobody walks away from such a huge investment and so it is difficult to ask the people to relocate. Besides, they got there first and, who approved the other developments? Did they conduct Environmental Impact Assessment or audit?”
Also, Beachland Estate is where the German School is situated. On its left is Julius Berger Estate, home to the company’s management team and their families. On Beachland’s right is Capital Oil’s tank farm; on its left are tank farms managed by Obat and Rahmannia. There are other ominous-looking tank farms on that stretch.
After last week’s fire caused by the explosion of a tanker bearing 33,000 litres of premium motor spirit (petrol), the Manager of Beachland Estate, Mr. Gbenga Egunjobi, restated the plea of residents that the tank farms be relocated.
Egunjobi said, “I advise government to relocate the tank farms from the residential areas because tank farms are supposed to be at least 25 kilometres away from where people are residing. It is only in Nigeria where tank farms are situated within residential areas. They are too close for comfort and we want government to yield to our call.”
How silos sprang up
In the past, storage of petroleum products in huge silos was reserved for oil multinationals with the competence in the management of the highly inflammable 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.
Ironically, 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 (DPR) 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.”
About this time last year, there was a fire at a barge owned by MRS, one of the big importers of petroleum products in the country. After the fire was doused, the Chairman of MRS Plc., Sayyu Dantata was quoted as saying fire could happen anytime, particularly during the dry season.
He said, “Obviously there must have been something that caused the barge to catch fire and explode, but investigations are still ongoing to ascertain what actually caused the fire. The important thing for me personally and the company is that we took precautionary measures to match international standards of modern Oil installations in terms of safety.
Regardless of this, the fire caused major damage. He could not believe the extent of the devastation. “I’ll tell you the truth, when I arrived at the scene of the fire incident less than two hours after, I could not believe that no one died because the amount of damage I saw from the explosion was enormous.”
That inferno was caused by a barge that was empty at the time of the explosion. Dantata said, “It was an empty barge. If it was laden with fuel you can imagine what the situation would have been, even though an empty barge can be more dangerous than a barge that is full of oil because there is no oxygen and it is easier to monitor.”
Worried by the development last January, Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, promised to work towards a relocation of the tank farms to the Lekki Free Trade Zone, away from residential areas. Dantata said the Governor’s move was alright but that there were issues that should be attended to before the relocation.
According to him, “If he is talking about free zone, we’ll be happy because people will build more modern facilities, better than the ones we have now and I can assure you that if our facility was not built with all safety standards strictly adhered to, perhaps the fire incident would have been worse.”
Government will also have to increase the frequency of transportation of petroleum products by rail, which resumed in September last year.
However, Dantata said tank farm owners understood the governor’s line of thought and would cooperate with him to ensure a successful relocation. “We are on the same page with the governor -to sit down, design and plan, when and how the depots can be relocated. For depots to be relocated we have to look into the issue of pipelines. Today, you have people who continue to vandalise petroleum pipelines.”
He said if security of pipelines was guaranteed, depots would not need to be by the sea, saying “If there is a will, there is always a way. It is a problem that all Nigerians need to come together to solve.”
Poverty, he said was largely responsible for the problem, “because if you have means to live well then why would you think of bursting a pipeline to steal product, a very risky venture that has consistently claimed the lives of many people.”
According to him, “It may take 5-10 years to relocate the terminals but let’s sit down with state, federal government and marketers to plan. It is a gradual process. The good thing about it is that when he (Lagos State governor) says things, he does it.”
The Department of Petroleum Resources’ 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.
There is a firm belief among residents of homes in the vicinity of the tank farms that they cannot prepare enough for fire outbreak. According to an engineer, Afolabi Adedeji, “There is fire hazard/risk, which, coupled with the activities of militants/insurgents and the capabilities of the public fire services, could be a very real threat, not just to those living in the immediate vicinity but to metropolitan Lagos.”
Adedeji said this devastation could be up to an approximate radius of five to 10 kilometers of Apapa where the bulk of the tank farms are located.
Another safety expert, Patrick Adenusi, said the tank farm owners ignored most of the safety 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.”
– This Day