THE continued presence of tank farms in residential areas and places of heavy human and vehicular traffic represents imminent detonation of a time bomb judging by the monumental but avoidable destruction of life and property occasioned by incessant pipeline explosions in the past. Tank farms belong to the class of industrial facilities that cannot brook any impairment or breach of their integrity without dire consequences because of the delicate nature of the products stored in them. For this reason, their location in residential areas is contra-indicated, especially in a poor society where the temptation is quite high for undisciplined persons to access theirvaluable contents through the back door. Since the national tragedy of October 1998, the Jesse petroleum pipeline explosion in Delta State which was triggered by intentional rupturing of pipelines by scavengers and in which some 1,082 lost their lives to the ensued inferno, scores of such incidents have been recorded elsewhere. According to the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr. Kyari Mele, the corporation has recorded some 45,347 attacks on its downstream pipeline network in the last 18 years. Though those incidents and the losses arising from them might not be on the same scale as incurred during the Jesse episode, they were avoidable andpainful, and certainly more disturbing as they were indicative of the inability of the relevant authorities to draw useful operational lessons from precedents.
Also, the hoodlums who have made it a vocation to steal products from the pipelines, as well as members of the public who have their residences, offices and shops in proximate locations to tank farms, would appear to have learnt nothing from the calamities that happened elsewhere or even in the same locations. For instance, the recent Ijegun pipeline explosion was not the first or second such incident in the community; explosions have happened time again. To be sure, illegal bunkering is a very huge business that has thrived in that neighbourhood for a long time with the obvious backing of men/women of means who provide outlaws with requisite logistics and transportation as well as protection from the law. Therefore, the relocation of tank farms being mulled by the House of Representatives is a welcome development, even if it is a less than proactive initiative but essentially a reaction to the recent disaster at Ijegun. Ijegun, Apapa, NNPC oil depot and others are now surrounded by residential buildings which were not there previously. There is veritable danger in the presence of tank farms in residential and industrial areas. Over time, there have been many pipeline fires. Indeed, the fires do damage all the time.
The issue of storage facilities and pipelines sharing neighbourhoods with homes and factories is attributed to urban areas expansion. However, in saner climes where urban planning with strict adherence to the fidelity of the extant master plan is accorded a premium, this kind of challenge would not have arisen. Ordinarily, there must be ample distance between tank farms and residences, as dictated by international best practices. Thus, in a sense, the current challenge is either a consequence of inadequate planning or the absence of official discipline to stick to plans, or both. And whatever the case is, it is a sad commentary on the competence of the official regulators in the Urban and Regional Planning offices as well as that of the oil and gas sector to deliver on the very basic expectations of their offices. For instance, how were the official approvals for the construction of residential and industrial structures that now literally surround the pipelines obtained? Or were they built without official consent? And if the structures were erected illegally, why has the relevant authorities failed to raise a red flag? Again, why are the owners of the pipelines in the residential/industrial areas finding it difficult to provide adequate and effective security to protect and ward off vandals from them?
The truth is that the pipeline explosions that result in disasters time and again in many locations in the country have their roots in the scourge of indiscipline and corruption that tend to characterise the private and public lives of many. Meanwhile, in its reaction to the call by the House of Representatives for the relocation of tank farms, the NNPC raised a valid concern about the dislocation in the supply and distribution chain of petroleum products that a speedy relocation would occasion. But that is no reason to watch and wait for the ticking bomb to detonate. At best, the relocation could be executed in phases rather than in one fell swoop in order to minimize the impact on the availability of petroleum products and circulation systems. There have been so many patently avoidable catastrophes in the country,and any effort to change the situation should be welcomed by all. The relocation of tank farms in residential areas is imperative.
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