Hajia Ilyasu was frail of health on that Sunday morning when screams of “fire” rang out from a nearby tank farm. She found sudden strength in her weakness.
“We rushed out of our houses and ran away because nobody knew if the fire was from fuel,” said Mrs. Ilyasu, a resident at Creek View Estate, Kirikiri, a Lagos suburb.
Mrs. Ilyasu said that she joined scores of other residents as they dashed towards the concrete-walled fence at the rear of the estate – the only exit at the back of the estate.
They returned to their homes hours later after the fire, which reportedly started in one of the diesel tanks, was brought under control.
“Nobody wanted to take chances. It was when we came back that we discovered it was diesel,” Mrs. Ilyasu said.
Such sudden sprints for dear lives have, in recent times, become a regular feature at the estate where oil marketers have built large capacity tanks used in storing the highly flammable fuel and diesel side by side with residential homes.
Techno Oil, Fatgbems Oil, Bovas Oil, Index Petroleum and Swift Oil are some of the companies who have put up more than two dozen tank farms for temporary storage of fuel, diesel, and kerosene.
A swampy land
About 15 years ago, the first settlers at the Creek View estate began to develop their parcels of land.
“Back then everywhere was a swamp. There was not a single tank farm here, and we even went to those areas to inspect the land,” said one of the earliest settlers at the estate, who declined to state his name.
“Last year alone, they (the oil companies) added up to eight tank farms. You can imagine how it feels for me and my wife to retire to this kind of place,” said the retiree, whose one-storey building is less than 100 metres from the tank farms.
Another resident, Augustine Obi, said that the tank farms had blocked all the drainage channels in the estate.
“We were here when they started building all those tank farms,” said Mr. Obi, who moved into the estate in 2003.
“We couldn’t complain because the owners of the land sold it to them” he added.
In 2005, Techno Oil Nigeria Limited arrived to set up the first of what would later become a chain of oil depots.
“When Techno came, they came with a very small tank,” said Patrick Onyegbule, vice chairman of the estate’s resident association.
“Nobody knew they would have this kind of monstrous things they have there today,” he said.
“When the oil people come, they don’t value anybody around there. Even, if human can turn to oil, they can take him,” said Mr. Onyegbule.
Mr. Onyegbule said that they have written – and are still writing – series of petitions to relevant authorities to draw attention to their plight.
In August last year, the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) sealed five of the oil tank farms for “violating the state’s environmental laws”.
According to LASEPA, oil companies were shut for siting tank farms less than 200 metres away from residential area and operating tank farms without submission of Environmental Impact Assessment report to the agency.
One week later, the agency gave the oil companies the nod to reopen for business.
“Operators of those oil depots have signed an MoU with the state government, in which it was agreed that a consultant will conduct a post-impact assessment of the area to ascertain the extent of environmental pollutions that may have been impacted,” said Rasheed Shabi, LASEPA’s general manager, justifying the reason for allowing the companies resume operations.
The MoU also mandated the oil companies to construct water hydrant in front of their depots and purchase fire engines to fight any outbreak of fire in the area “as safety measures because of their closeness to residential buildings,” according to Mr. Shabi.
Residents at the estate blame LASEPA, the state government’s environmental regulatory agency, for complacency.
“The government agencies and their representatives seem like they don’t know what they are doing,” Mr. Onyegbule said.
Efforts to speak with Mr. Shabi were not successful. Interviews were scheduled and cancelled at the last minute on three occasions.
‘We came first’
On a recent afternoon, dozens of tankers lined up the dusty road leading to one of the tank farms.
Five men sat on a wooden bench under a makeshift tent and waited for the food vendor, an elderly woman who periodically used her grease stained apron to wipe a sweaty brow.
A few feet away, two men shared a lighted cigarette under an empty tanker as they awaited their turn to lift diesel.
Most of the oil depots managers outrightly declined interview requests or gave other reasons to avoid responding to questions.
A security officer at Swift Oil, whose name tag bears R. Badmus, insisted on writing down the questions the depot manager.
He returned minutes later to say that “Oga is not around”.
“We didn’t just drop for the sky, there are provisions we met before we started operation here,” he added, trying to answer one of the questions.
The Chief Safety Officer at Techno Oil, who identified himself as Mr. Hassan, said that safety drills are conducted regularly for staff to prepare them for fire outbreaks.
“There is always the risk of fire as a result of the three fire elements – heat, fuel and oxygen,” Mr. Hassan said.
On the fire incident which caused the nearby residents to scamper to safety, Mr. Hassan said that it “was just a small fire and we put it off even before fire fighters from the state arrived.”
“You know you can’t stop development, people will always look for where to live. We have been here for 20 years, the people who live around came and met us here.”
Douglas Agba, an environmentalist, said that prior to the advent of the tank farms at Kirikiri, petroleum products were piped from Atlas Cove jetty to “wherever you want it to go.”
“The jetty is still there but it’s no longer functional,” said Mr. Agba, the Programme Manager at Save Environment and Health Organization, a non governmental organization.
“It will be difficult for the people to relocate because the tank farms came and met them there.
“The tank farms are growing everyday. They should be curtailed, relocated, or the people resettled to a safer place.”
To draw attention to their plight, Mr. Onyegbule said that they had written petitions to the Nigerian Navy, the Prisons, local government, and the Department for Petroleum Resources.
“None (of them) can deny receipt of out petitions. None of them invited us,” Mr. Onyegbule said.
When, in 2010, Clement Ikisikpo led other members of the House of Representatives Committee on the Downstream Sector on inspection of the tank farms; they “vowed” to recommend the relocation of petroleum tank farms due to their close proximity to residential houses, military and police barracks, “as well as other sensitive areas.”
At the Creek View estate, new property developers have halted their operations due to the risk posed by the continued presence of the farms, I.C.P Umeh, the estate’s chairman said.
Last year, El-Elyon Learnigville, a nursery and primary school sited less than 100 metres from the tank farms were forced to relocated.
The school management declined requests for an interview but a teacher told PREMIUM TIMES that the school’s Parent Teachers Association raised concerns over the nearness of the oil depots.
“The tank farms are too close for comfort, and we have a lot of children in the school,” she said.
The residents’ association say they are no longer waiting for government’s unending promises and pronunciations.
They plan to open a Facebook page to try to get the attention of international agencies.
They have also written a letter to be “personally delivered” to the Petroleum Minister.
“This letter we have written, we are not passing it through the normal channel. They (the oil companies) know how to scheme and carpet everybody.
“We are using our man to try and get the letter to the person at the top,” said Mr. Onyegbule.
“We are struggling in a nation we think we are citizens.”
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