Thursday, June 12, 2008

Averting pipeline fire disasters

The incidence of pipeline fire disasters in the country is alarming and therefore calls for serious concern. Between May 15 and 26, the nation has witnessed two pipeline fire disasters and one spillage.

Recently, tragedy struck in Ijegun, a Lagos suburb, when an earth mover (bulldozer) grading a road in the village inadvertently ruptured pipelines and ignited a fire disaster that claimed scores of innocent lives including babies, school children and mothers attempting to rescue their trapped babies. Properties worth millions of naira were also reportedly lost to the inferno.

The Ijegun tragedy, unlike the other crime-induced pipeline disasters in the country, was an accident ignited by a needless institutional blunder.

While the nation was still counting its losses, a pipeline fire explosion occurred at Gbaga village near Mosimi in Ogun State 12 days later. The explosion, which was caused by the activities of vandals, resulted in a shootout between them and the security agents. There were contradictory reports on the incident. While the Chairman of the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria, Mosimi Branch, Alhaji Sarajudeen Bada, claimed that no life was lost but that some people were injured in the shootout, another report said five people died and nine others sustained injuries.

An oil spillage that nearly resulted in another fire explosion also occurred the same day at Mosan in Ipaja, a Lagos suburb.

Pipeline fire disasters, are sadly, fast becoming the norm rather than the exception in the country. Between 1998 and 2008, the nation recorded over 20 pipeline fire disasters. Over 2,500 citizens and properties worth billions of naira were lost to the avoidable incidents.

It is unfortunate that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has not been able to evolve a proactive solution to these unfortunate incidents. Most of the pipelines in the country were laid about 30 years ago and have become rusty. Besides, in spite of the fact that the pipelines were laid when the areas were still forests, they are left the way they were even when the areas have become urban centres with heavy human presence. Also, it is alarming that in spite of the incessant fire disasters across the nation, the NNPC has not considered it proper to increase the depth of the pipelines, encase them and cover them with concrete slabs to forestall abuse and easy reach by vandals.

Communities sitting on pipelines should promptly alert the relevant authorities any time they sense danger. There is also the need for relevant authorities to make danger signals available and conspicuous at strategic points. Such signals should carry emergency phone numbers for the use of community members in distress.

The Ijegun fire disaster also brings to mind the lamentable state of fire services in the country. Although the emergency agencies did their best under the circumstances, there is still the need to equip them to effectively respond to emergencies as many lives would have been saved if necessary equipment had been available.

In view of the fact that the Ijegun pipeline fire disaster was an accident, the Lagos State Government and the NNPC should wake up to their social responsibilities by compensating the victims and their families as appropriate.

The fact that so many villages, roads and projects are sitting dangerously on pipelines across the country is an indication that the NNPC has been lax in protecting its facilities. The Ijegun fire disaster also raises some pertinent questions. Did the NNPC erect a proper signal to prevent such a trespass in the area? How does the corporation seek redress when its right of way is violated? It is also curious that no permanent solution has been proffered to the inherent problems since these breaches occurred.

Given the decrepit state of its pipelines, the NNPC should come up with a timetable on how to rehabilitate and encase the facilities. All pipelines must be protected significantly against vandalism and abuse. The timetable, which should be measurable and time-bound, should be made public.