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Living in fear of oil waste

By Haggai Matsiko

Expectations of oil cash give way to anxiety as oil waste regulations delay

The presence of billions of barrels of oil – the black gold- would ordinarily arouse great expectations in the minds of people everywhere. Not so in the Albertan Graben. Increasingly, a voice of communities and conservationists worried about oil waste is growing in the region. After years of oil exploration and drilling in the region, residents say the waste that has come along might endanger their homeland. Despite having 2.5 billion barrels of oil, the region is a highly ecological sensitive region that is home to unique and endangered species.


When this reporter visited Bullisa District – one of the districts where oil companies are operating on discovered oil wells – civic leaders expressed concern about oil waste sites being set up in their communities. Oil waste, environment officers and conservationists concur, contains heavy metals that are harmful to life.

“People say that they hear trucks passing and then get a chocking smell,” Robert Byaruhanga, the programme officer for the African Institute for Energy Governance, which sensitizes people here, told a group of Ugandan and Ghanaian journalists on the tour. “They are worried that the oil companies are always transporting waste to dump it somewhere in their communities.”

But for the residents, there are two sides to the oil story. While they say they are worried, on another side they might be happy about what has happened to their town. At a new bar, patrons can now play pool. Across the road are two new huge glass buildings— a hotel with an estimated capacity of about a hundred guests. Next to it are Tullow Oil offices while a Stanbic Bank branch is also close by. A little distance further is a plush $ 2m health centre, constructed by Tullow Oil to help treat the residents. On top of these positive developments are a number of roads that have come with the oil discoveries here.

But on the other side of the coin, according to Isaac Nkuba, the chairman NGO Forum Buliisa, is the oil waste that is feared to be harmful. When National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) recently earmarked two new locations, one at Nyapeya in Buliisa Town Council and the other in Mivule village in Ngwedu subcounty—both within the communities, people were quick to object.

Buliisa residents join those of Kaiso-Tonya in neighbouring Hoima, Arua and most recently Nyoya Districts who have raised similar fears about oil waste.

Tullow oil’s Corporate Communications manager Cathy Adengo said they collect all the waste at locations gazetted by NEMA. “For now the operators are required to collect the waste and store it at approved sites,” Adengo said. “The government is responsible for the procurement of the companies that will be put in place to manage the waste later.”

Experts in the oil industry say that best practice requires that waste treatment and management should be done by independent and specialized companies.

“All drilling waste is dumped here at Ngara, it is the only storage site in Block two,” Adengo said, while at the waste site. “This is not a sustainable solution that is why government is speeding up the legal process to manage the waste.”

A waste site

Here, at Ngara 1, are about 6 rectangular-shaped heaps of solid waste and each heap is about a few tones covered with black plastic material.

In another corner of this fenced off area are two deep cemented pits of liquid waste, one of the two well built and roofed pits is full of the waste. Next to the two is another waste pit almost the size of a football pitch. It is not clear whether its floor is cemented, but the pit is surrounded with a thick polythene material. Unlike the other two smaller ones, it is not covered and it is full to the brim with liquid waste.

Birds and other animals that can break into this would have a field day. Yet, the substance in these pits, experts said is extremely toxic.

“When I worked there, I found that every single animal or insect that got into the waste, that was its end,” Robert Ddamulira, a conservation Manager with World Wild Life Fund who previously worked with Tullow Oil as a field Environmental Officer said, “it is so corrosive.”

The sticky, greenish oily substance lets off a pungent chemical-like smell.

Ngara 1 is just one of the waste dumping sites—there are many of these and the oil companies are being allocated more locations to dispose their waste. Ngara 1 is located a few metres from a resident’s homestead and to reach it, one passes by gardens of cassava and other food crops.

Ddamulira, notes that such huge quantities of waste are dangerous to the region which is home to 50 percent of the world’s mountain gorillas, 1,500 unique bird species, seven percent of the world’s mammals and special breeding sites.

Environment authorities questioned

The fear about the oil waste is exacerbated by what the people here say is the incapacity of the institutions and authorities involved to handle the oil waste.

Buliisa LCV Chairman Fred Lukumu said the district does not have an environment officer who would watch out for any dangers. The acting environment officer, he said is an agriculturist who is also the fisheries officer.

Also, the authorities that are supposed to monitor the oil companies and protect the environment are too close to the oil companies to do a good job.

“You can say that Tullow and Petroleum Production and Exploration Department (PPED) officials are almost the same body and you can as well add there NEMA— a weak institution, ill-equipped and handling the same sector,” Lukumu said. “PPED personnel are more like Tullow employees, they are always together. There are fears that our officers can easily be compromised.”

He added that what compounds the situation is that these government officials are not well facilitated to work independently. Tullow’s Adengo confirmed that NEMA officials stay in Tullow’s camp, which she said was not deliberate but as a result of lack of accomodation in the area.

The Tullow officials said that before exploration activities start, they normally first do Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that look at the possible effects of the activities and proceed after they are given a go ahead. But Lukumu said they have less confidence in EIAs because it is the oil companies that pay for them and not NEMA in what he described as “a case of he who pays the piper, calls the tune.” To address these fears, NEMA introduced the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)—a globally recognized tool that ensures that oil activities are undertaken in a manner that conserves the environment.

Unlike EIAs, SEAs are funded by the government and many people including civil society, the public and the SEA steering committee comprising of officials from NEMA, UWA, PEPD, and other departments participated.

This is a relief to Lukumu and others’ fear over inadequate supervision.

Cases of waste disposal

Just last month, Douglas Oluoch, a farmer in Purongo sub-county, Nwoya District, told Oil in Uganda, a local oil sector publication, that Heritage Oil dumped tonnes of waste in a pit on his land, just a few kilometres from Murchison Falls National Park, after paying him Shs 750,000 and claiming that the waste was not harmful but would act as “a fertilizer.”

Unlike the pits in the camps where oil companies deposit waste, here the pit was not lined with concrete or plastic, Oil in Uganda reported. The paper added that although Olouch was told that the waste would be safe, months after they had buried  it on his land, NEMA officials visited his farm and advised him and his family not to eat the cassava he had planted on the site of the pit.

Total which acquired the block from Tullow, says it is ready to do a thorough clean up. “As the new operator of Exploration Area 1, Total will deal with legacy issues inherited from the previous operators of the licence area,” Oil in Uganda quoted Anne-Sophie Leroy, the environment and corporate Social Responsibility Manager for Total in Uganda.

But she said that the current limitation for the company was that NEMA had not put in place guidelines on the proper handling and disposal of drilling waste. “When these guidelines are put in place, drilling waste will be accordingly removed, treated and disposed of in the appropriate manner.”

In another case, when Neptune Oil’s licence expired earlier this year and it abandoned its Rhino Camp, residents expressed concern that the company had abandoned waste in Aviv1—one of its two dry wells.

Residents told journalists that even the soldiers that had been left behind after the company abandoned the site also left the area, leaving behind waste materials in sacks and the liquid in a reservoir that residents feared was a potential health hazard. Neptune drilled Aviv 1 and Iti 1 but failed to find any oil.

These might be isolated cases but they in part expose lack of proper supervision of the oil companies. With over 30 oil wells located in the national parks such as Queen Elizabeth national and Murchison Falls, experts fear that lack of supervision would be a great danger to the flora and fauna and eventually the country’s tourism industry.

NEMA’s new guidelines

NEMA recently launched the Environmental Monitoring Plan for the Albertine Graben 2012-2017, which stipulates the guidelines for oil waste management.

Under the guidelines, NEMA, UWA and PEPD have allowed oil companies to bury oil waste generated during the exploration stage at the site. But the waste generated during the production stage will have to be treated first before it is burried.

Tom Okurut, the NEMA Executive Director, was quoted by a local newspaper as saying that following tests in UK, Canada and US, only lead has been found as the toxic component in the waste.

“Apart from this, the rest of the waste is within standards. Therefore, this means that we can ensure that the waste being generated can be buried at the sites without causing change in environment,” he told The Observer, “We are going to have lining so that it is contained there because lead doesn’t move.”

Medical experts say that if not well-contained, lead is a very dangerous chemical. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) an international medical NGO, has been on Nigeria’s case to deal with waste in in region of Zamfara which it said is the worst case of lead poisoning, with 460 children dead and 4,000 poisoned.

The new NEMA guidelines also require oil companies to decommission or restore their sites of operation back to their original statu s. NEMA will also track the different changes to the environment as a result of oil activities, mainly using the environmental sensitivity atlas. Formulated in 2010, the atlas shows the environmental situation in the Albertine Graben before the oil activities started.

The monitoring plan requires oil companies to deposit a performance bond before they start production. This, according to Okurut, would act as security that NEMA can use to restore the environment if the company distorts it.

In its 2010 report titled, ‘Contracts Curse: Uganda’s oil agreements place profit before people,’ Civil Society Coalition on Oil in Uganda, a consortium of NGOs, decried the lack of strict regulations and penalties in case of environmental damages by the oil companies. However, the monitoring plan also provides for cancelling of a licence in case an oil company doesn’t comply with the guidelines.

The government has also tabled oil bills that will regulate oil waste management and disposal though some experts have criticised them as “too weak”

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