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Special Report: Impact of continual gas explosions on Lagos environment

By Olamide Francis, Lagos

Beyond the counting of casualties, NatureNews examines the environmental impact of numerous incidents of gas explosions in Lagos

Lagos is the commercial capital of Nigeria and the seventh-largest economy in Africa (if it were a country). With over 20 million people (projected to double in 2050) nesting in the city, Lagos is a megalopolis with mega needs. Perhaps this mushrooming population is responsible for its traffic snarls and entrepreneurial dynamism.

With such an encompassing economic and geographical advantage, it requires a top-notch overseer to maximise its enormous tangible and intangible resources. After all, an African proverb opines that “the bigger the head the bigger the headache.”

From the beginning of the year to the time of filing this report, Lagos has been rocked by three major gas explosions in the space of eight months, excluding petrol tanker explosions that are subtly becoming a pattern. NatureNews gathered that these gas explosions at different areas of Lagos – Abule-Odo, Ajuwon and Baruwa – had claimed at least 25 lives, destroyed properties worth billions of naira, and left over 60 people hospitalised.

Causes of gas explosions

It was observed that the causes of gas explosions in Lagos are manifold, however, all cases of the explosion have an element of human negligence.

According to the BBC, the gas explosion at Abule-Odo was caused by the exposure of NNPC gas pipeline laid across the residential areas. It was observed that while NNPC is to blame for not taking proper care of its gas pipeline in that community, migration of people and expansion of built area contributed to the extent of damage done by the explosion.

Michael Simire, CEO MS and Associates pinned the extent of damage to the expansion of built area out of proportion, adding to that, gas pipelines are bound to age and care of them must be the responsibility of NNPC in agreement with the communities.

He said, “Some of these residential neighborhoods grew out of proportion to within touching distances to petrol pipelines. The authorities should ensure that the appropriate distances of neighborhoods to pipelines (and depth underground) are adhered to. There are always dangers of gas leakages, either due to ageing/poorly maintained pipelines or due to acts of sabotage. While government and oil and gas companies should monitor and properly maintain their pipelines, community associations on their part should operate local security arms to keep pipelines and installations within their communities safe from saboteurs.”

Cyrille Wassouo, a conservationist based in Cameroon opined, “In my opinion, I think that the pipeline was built long before the populations settled (for more than 25 years). We can suspect causes related to poor urban planning that does not take into account the increase in population. As the pipeline is very old, there is a constant danger of gas leakage and explosion into the environment.”

He said plans must be put in place to either evacuate residents from gas pipeline laden areas or the erection of pipeline across residential areas should be totally eradicated.

“Serious studies must be carried out to determine whether the passage of pipelines through residential areas should be totally eliminated or whether populations installed near pipelines should be evicted, or whether there are other more viable alternatives for the state,” he said.

A senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Management and Toxicology at the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta, Dr. O. H. Adedeji said, “I think gas explosions are rampant these days because of lack of planning, regulation and control. Lots of people are engaged in the business without permission and verification. Necessary safety measures are not adhered to and people are not handling the dispensation of the product properly. Most people are in it for quick profit without training.”

The gases that led to the explosions in these communities are hydrocarbons – Methane, Propane, Butane or a mixture of hydrocarbons (Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). Gases passed through underground pipelines are mostly methane, as observed at the Abule-odo incident. Also, methane is the most common gas used for domestic purpose. If unavailable, propane is used as an alternative. All of these gases are highly inflammable and destructive if not properly handled.

According Prof. K. Olayinka in the Department of Chemistry, the University of Lagos, “The natural gas used for domestic operations is flammable and consists mainly of methane and some other hydrocarbons. Methane is non-toxic but flammable and can form an explosive mixture when mixed with air.”Impact of explosions on environment

Beyond the counting of casualties, NatureNews examined the environmental impact of these gas explosions. Gas explosions of that magnitude are detrimental to the environment – in the present and future. While the extent of environmental damage might not be measured with the naked eyes, the flora and fauna in the region suffer so much.

In the event of the explosions, poisonous gases detrimental to human health are released into the environment. Propane, Methane or Butane give off nitrogen oxide into the environment when burnt. They produces carbondioxide (though in less quantity when compared to the use of coal and oil), a greenhouse gas known to be a huge contributor to global warming and climate change.

The combustion of hydrocarbons, as witnessed at the sites of the explosions in Lagos, produced negligible amount of mercury, sulphur, and particulate matter into the environment. Mercury is a heavy metal that threatens human health and welfare. It gives off carbon mono-oxide, nitrogen oxide and unburned hydrocarbon. All of these products of the burning and combustion of hydrocarbons are harmful on vegetation, soil, water, air, wildlife and human health of the environment.

Professor Mrs. Olayinka Asekun in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Lagos said, “Release of toxic and poisonous gases at levels above the threshold or permissible limits in the environment is dangerous to the environment and human health. Also with gas explosions comes inferno and fire. Combustion of materials releases polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and other organic pollutants in the environment.”

She explained, “These can be inhaled and cause severe acute toxicity in man. Many of these pollutants are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. Particulates are also released into the environment. Inhalation of these is also detrimental to human health. Burning also releases large concentration of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming which contributes to climate change.”

Prof. Asekun claims were corroborated by Michael Simire, an urban planner and environmentalist, and Cyrille Wassouo, a Cameroonian environmentalist. Simire said, “Yes, some explosions can produce toxic gases like nitrogen oxide (NO2), nitric oxide (NO), and carbon monoxide (CO)”. Wassouo said, “Gas explosions release chemicals such as: CO2, CO, NOx, heavy metals, etc.”

Toll on the economy

Lagos gas explosion incidents wreak havoc on the economy of the areas affected even as people are displaced. The displacement can lead to an increase in urban-urban migration as families and those affected are left with the herculean task of starting a new life. Michael Simire, CEO of MS and Associates, who also doubles as the Editor-in-Chief, environewsnigeria, explained that pipeline explosion is detrimental and can lead to social, economic and financial strain on the people and the government.

He said, “Gas explosion causes displacement of people. Displacement results in social and economic strain on society. Displaced persons may have to seek temporary accommodation probably from relatives. They are faced with an economic burden of seeking new places of abode and replacing lost properties. Government/community faces the prospect of repairing damaged infrastructure, and providing palliatives to survivors.”

Beyond the effects of poisonous gases released into the environment, the most inconspicuous environmental damage gas explosions have done to these three communities are damage to soil biota, exposure to sunlight and unprotected soil surface from erosion. As hydrocarbons are burnt during the gas explosion, vegetation protecting the soil from erosion is eradicated thereby exposing the bare soil surface to erosion and excessive sunlight. The excessive temperature caused by gas explosion affects biota in the soil and destroys soil organisms that contribute to plant growth and development.

Solution

Experts suggest that the Lagos State Government must seek to access the environmental damage associated with gas explosions not just the counting of casualties. Measures should also be put in place to ensure that gas station operators are adequately trained, audited and approved before setting up gas plants in any area of the state. Houses sited along gas pipelines should be evacuated to avert future occurrence.


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