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Cleaning up oil

By Ronald Musoke

New oil waste treatment facility brings relief to communities

In 2009, the international independent oil and gas exploration firm, Heritage Oil, then based in Calgary Canada, needed a site to dump thousands of tonnes of oil waste from its exploration activities in Uganda. It was sinking prospecting wells in the northern Uganda area of the Albertine Graben that came to be called the EA1 Pakwach Basin, the site of one of the biggest oil wells.

When Heritage approached Douglas Oluoch, a peasant farmer in Gwot Apwoyo in Purongo Sub-County, Nwoya District with an offer of Shs750, 000 (Approx. US$375) to allow it dump the solid waste on his land, he thought it was a good deal.  The reality Oluoch did not know was that he was signing himself into trouble. When environmental protection organisations learnt of the deal and exposed its dangers, Oluoch became a pariah in his community.

Suddenly, Oluoch says, his village-mates refused to buy his farm produce. Everybody feared it was polluted with oil waste toxins.

Before the Oluoch incident, Heritage had since 2005, when its explorations begun, been dumping thousands of tonnes of oil waste in Pubit village, also in Purongo Sub- County.

The environmental organisation activists started talking of ‘a Niger Delta scenario’ in reference to anticipated pollution. They told villagers that oil and gas exploration activities generate solid, liquid, and gaseous pollutants that can damage the air, soil, and ground water. Some of the pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury, and zinc are harmful to humans and animal life that feed on plants and water in polluted areas.

Guided by environmental protection organisations, the villagers of Gwot Apwoyo mounted a campaign to rid their area of the oil waste. This area is also in proximity to Uganda’s biggest wildlife reserve; the Murchison Falls Conservation Area.  The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) was on the spot. Heritage left in 2009 without cleaning up the waste. In 2011, the French oil major, Total SA, which is the current holder of the oil exploration license, also found itself a target of environmental watchdogs when it took over the area.

At the time, Uganda did not have guidelines for oil and gas operations waste management. These came later in a 2012 document by NEMA. Even then, it was more in theory than in practice as Uganda did not have a single oil and gas operations Exploration and Production (E&P) waste management facility. But this story might have a good ending. On April 23, Uganda got its first ever E&P oil waste management facility.  Located at Nyamasoga village, Buseruka Sub County, in Hoima District, the new $20 million (Shs60 billion) facility which is owned and run by the South African consortium EnviroServ Waste Management Ltd and a local firm, Green Albertine Ltd, has already brought relief to Oluoch.  The plant is about 200kms away along the newly built Hoima-Kaiso Tonya Road.

In November 2014, Total E&P Uganda became the first oil company to sign up for the services of EnviroServ to clean up the mess in Purongo, Nwoya District. Grant Caroline, the Director of EnviroServ Uganda Ltd, says all the waste from Purongo has been taken away and tests done.

Oluoch’s farmland was declared clean and safe, according to Caroline, and the farm is under rehabilitation by Total E&P Uganda and natural vegetation will soon be planted.

Ahlem Friga Noy, the Corporate Affairs Manager of Total E&P says getting the facility is a milestone in the development of infrastructure required in the development of Uganda’s oil and gas sector.

“Uganda is already known for adhering to high industry standards,” she said, “As a company, Total always adheres to legal compliance [as well as] company, national, regional and international standards.”

The oil waste facility comes at a time when Uganda recently announced the long awaited licensing round for more petroleum exploration in six blocks of the Albertine Graben, meaning once exploration starts, more volumes of waste is expected to be generated.

And although production has been delayed, when oil extraction eventually starts, towards the end of the decade, more oil waste will be generated, meaning that competent companies that can ably handle waste treatment, storage and disposal are needed in the country.

About 300,000 tonnes of drill waste is expected to be produced when oil production starts, Tullow Oil Uganda’s Environmental Manager, Phillipe Bouzet told the sector publication; Oil in Uganda, last November.   Hundreds of wells are expected to be drilled when oil production starts, with each well producing varied amounts of waste depending on depth.

During the exploration phase in which about 80 wells were drilled along the country’s western frontier (Albertine Rift), tens of thousands of tonnes of waste were generated.

Oil drill waste is normally made up of mud and rock which is removed as the machines cut into the earth. These together with chemical additives that are poured down the well to assist in the drilling form what is called oil waste.

The new plant

Caroline told The Independent that the plant will take waste for the next 20 years although its lifespan will essentially decrease or increase depending on the amount of waste it receives when oil production begins in earnest.

The EnviroServ facility sits on 100 acres of land and the new plant uses just a tiny portion of that. The remaining land will be for future development which include waste minimization and or reuse processes.

“If we can find a business case for the alternative waste treatment methods, then we will add them to the facility,” he said.

Its parent company, EnviroServ International, has over 35 years’ experience in waste management and boasts certifications in several internationally recognised management systems. It currently operates in Angola, Botswana, DR Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia.

The key elements of the EnviroServ facility design are waste treatment area containment; contaminated storm water control, leachate control system, and landfill liner design.

The facility analyses, treats, and disposes both waste water and other liquids from both the oil and gas installations and other industries. It includes a waste water treatment plant, a laboratory, a hazardous landfill, and auxiliary services. Further capacity in waste recycling, re-use, recovery and reduction will be added beginning next year based on market requirements.

Schalk Van Heerden, the Laboratory Manager at the plant told The Independent during the launch that the laboratories are able to analyze all hazardous waste delivered to the site and the effluent/waste treatment plant incorporates four phases of water treatment; pre-treatment, ultra-filtration, reverse osmosis and pH adjustment. All these processes lead to the final treated water recovered to the level of drinking.

“The final product of the waste treatment is made to the level of drinking,” Heerden said, “But we don’t use it for drinking due to people’s tastes so we could use it for watering plants.”  For solid waste, the site has a landfill with four cells; each of which has been further subdivided into two, making the total number eight where solid waste is stabilised. The landfill has 11 monitoring wells for underground water to compare results from different areas on the site. These wells have been established with the sole purpose of monitoring underground water quality, says Joel Ogarubo, the landfill manager. The design lifespan of the landfill is 20 years with a post closure monitoring of a further 30 years.

By April when it was launched, the facility had about 40 fulltime employees who have got specialised training in South Africa and according to Caroline; the plan is to make the company a fully Ugandan-run firm.

“The only foreign expert remaining for another year is one who will be training laboratory staff on handling specialised equipment,” he said.

Isaac Ntujju, the Senior Environmental Inspector at NEMA said the facility has been built to the specifications and to the promises that EnviroServ made to NEMA, adding that EnviroServ had set the benchmarks.  EnviroServ’s certificate of approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment was secured in Aug. 2013. NEMA has also given EnviroServ a waste water discharge permit after receiving an operating license in December, 2014. EnviroServ started construction of the facility in April, 2014.

Benon Tusingwire, the executive director of the Hoima-based local NGO, Navigators of Development Association (NAVODA), said the communities no longer have to worry about having oil waste disposed in their midst.  “People around Kaiso used to feel a stench from the liquid waste holding facilities which are quite near,” he says, “Communities were anxious that rain would somehow wash the liquid waste into their homesteads and gardens.”

Still, Tusingwire hopes more treatment facilities will be set in areas closer to the shores of Lake Albert and inside Murchison Falls National Park where the oil wells are located. He mentions Ngassa II which is just underneath the floor of Lake Albert although its well head is onshore at Kaiso Tonya.

There are more than 30 wells in wildlife reserves according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority—a development which has always put conservation agencies at loggerheads with both the government and oil companies.

To avoid further conflict, EnviroServ staff meets every month with the affected communities and discuss any concerns. Joseline Nyangoma, the Senior Environment Officer, Hoima District told The Independent that right from the start, the community has worked with the company and the people are not worried. Nyangoma said the people know what the facility does and what kind of waste is brought there. They are mainly subsistence farmers and cattle keepers who could easily get jittery without proper information. In 2012, people in neighbouring Buliisa District rejected a request by Tullow Oil Uganda to have a waste consolidation site in the midst of their community.

Tom Okurut, the NEMA executive director told The Independent that going forward, oil companies are expected to transfer all the oil waste that has for years been kept at the consolidation sites to Nyamasoga.

He said NEMA has given the oil companies up to June to transport the waste from the consolidation sites to this facility which can handle up to one million tonnes of solid waste.

Caroline told The Independent that already the company has responded to tender notices from Tullow Oil and CNOOC. Besides EnviroServ, NEMA has licensed other five companies; including White Nile Consults, and SLL. They are expected to acquire land, build and own the infrastructure, and operate the facility.

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