BY TAIWO FAROTIMI
By the time the dust settles on the raging pipeline fire reported Sunday in Niger State the world would be wondering what is wrong with Nigeria. This is because incidents of pipeline fire have become such a regular occurrence in the country that it ought to have been stamped out completely. Starting from the Jesse tragedy in October 1998 to the unfortunate incident at Ijegun, a suburb of Lagos, in 2008, it was expected that the authorities would have taken measures to guide against a re-occurrence. More important, it is also expected that the people, not withstanding likely poverty situation, would have now been more educated about the danger of scooping fuel when there is a burst pipeline or a fallen fuel tanker.
Had the necessary precaution been taken, the casualty figures would have reduced in each of the subsequent incidents.
The country lost about 800, some even say it was above 1000, in Jesse, Ethiope West local government area of Delta State in 1998. There was a leakage, the beginning of which was a source of controversy, which tempted villagers to rush to scoop fuel. The spill spread across over 30 villages, with Jesse mostly affected. The Petroleum Products Marketing Company, PPMC, a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, said then that the incident was a result of activities of pipeline vandals.
So, even though the casualty figures were high, the question of compensation was ruled out. But Environmental Rights Agenda, ERA, a non-governmental organization, NGO, argued in a statement that such allegations are often used to cover up questions being raised about the responsibility for the protection of pipelines and the assessment and repairs of the aging pipelines.
The casualty at the Ijegun tragedy, which left 15 houses and 20 cars burnt, was said to be 100. The Ijegun incident was different because it was an accident. A bulldozer at work for road construction by the state government reportedly struck buried pipelines. The petroleum product flowed across the Ijegun area to Isolo, leaving people to run for safety. But by the time the fire struck, a path had been drawn for it.
That was two years after a similar fire raged at Abule Egba, another Lagos suburb. The 2006 incident occurred in a densely populated area thus claiming no fewer than 250 people. That was apart from the burnt properties, including houses and vehicles.
Again the official report was that some vandals went to the neighborhood overnight and ripped open the pipeline. The intention was to take fuel illegally and sell, being a time there was scarcity of the product at the filling stations. What was not addressed was the response level of the PPMC, which some residents claimed was slow, because there were residents who claimed that the matter had been reported before the explosion happened. Even where the authorities did not act as promptly as possible, what prevents the people from learning from the mistakes of the past and stay away from scooping the product? In the Abule Egba incident, there were reports of people who had made a number of trips to the area. In fact, it is believed that some of the burnt houses may have had fuel in their premises when fire touched them.
But if residents of some other places can be excused for ignorance what about places where there had been similar occurrences in the past with attendant tragedy?
By the time another pipeline fire occurred in Jesse in the year 2000, it was surprising to realise that many people were caught up in the inferno that happened while scooping fuel. That tragedy claimed about 250 people, but reports also stated that among the victims were farmers who ran into the fire or got caught in their houses or on the farm. Such victims are like those who, in the Lagos incidents, got burnt in their homes or those who were passers-by.
Aside from those major occurrences, there have been situations where people struggle to scoop fuel from fallen tankers. In fact, sometime ago, some people were killed while scooping fuel from a tanker that eventually fell on them.
Apart from the human tragedy, there is the attendant economic problem arising from the disaster. For instance, there was a pipeline fire, last January, that affected generation of electricity in the country. So, apart from failing to meet the demand of our customers in the neighbouring countries, the crisis affected supply to the national grid. The pipeline fire was due to a fire incident on the Escravos Lagos Pipeline System of the Nigerian Gas Processing and Transportation Company Limited.
These tragedies are too many, and if only for the innocent victims who either die in such accidents or lose relatives, the authorities should give serious thought on how to curb these disasters. Enough is enough.