By Oladeinde Olawoyin
Since August last year, residents of St. Finbarr’s College road in Akoka have been exposed to hazards arising from water pollution caused by a fuel leakage in the community. PREMIUM TIMES’ Oladeinde Olawoyin, who investigated the matter, reports the dangers that residents face due to the exposure and continuous use of polluted water.
“I know the water smells of fuel but we only use it to cook on Sunday,” Oluchi Duru, a trader who sells bean cakes on the street adjacent to Abdullahi Street, told PREMIUM TIMES reporter amidst forced laughter.
“I just pray that God protects us,” she concluded, with a weary voice.
Ms Duru is one of thousands of residents affected by soil and underground water pollution in the residential areas adjoining the Total Filling station along St. Finbarr’s College road, Akoka, Lagos State. The areas include Abdullahi Street, Aiyetoro Street and other residential buildings around the filling station. The pollution, PREMIUM TIMES findings revealed, was caused by a leakage that occurred in the neighborhood. Tanks belonging to a filling station was widely alleged to be the source of the pollution, although the operators of the filling station deny culpability, citing other possible sources.
Genesis Of Pollution
Signs that the water had become contaminated became evident around August 2017, many residents who spoke to this reporter said, but some residents feared that the pollution and exposure might have happened much earlier before then.
Ifeamaka Umeike, who lives in Abdullahi Street, told PREMIUM TIMES that the offensive smell became unbearable around August.
“I came back (from abroad) around August and we noticed that the area and our water smelt of fuel. We couldn’t even imagine such thing could happen until complaints came that the water has been polluted and it smelt of fuel,” she said.
“Water from our tanks smell strongly of PMS and we couldn’t use it for any purpose. We buy water for drinking and cooking and that has shot up our budget.”
Another resident, who identified himself as Yakubu, told PREMIUM TIMES he noticed the offensive smell when his children began to complain.
“I am naturally not sensitive to smell,” he told this reporter. “I noticed it around August last year when my wife and children complained that the water smelt of fuel. I initially didn’t take them seriously until I noticed it myself and advised that we stopped using the water. We have had to use alternative sources of water since then,” he said.
Mr Nwelu, a neighbor to Mr Yakubu, lamented the situation, saying life has never been the same for the residents since the incident. He however raised concerns over the state of health of other residents who are still exposed to the water.
“Initially, we didn’t know it was from the filling station; we were using the water to bathe and brush mouth and all until the smell became intense. Coincidentally, we got to know from the taxi drivers here that there was a leakage at the filling station,” he said.
“They saw them working on their tanks because there was caution sign at the station. Initially, the dealer was a little bit hard on us. But he later sent in some people. We felt it was something we could flush out; but later the water became creamy and very ‘serious’. Then they said they reported to LASEPA (Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency) and that in two weeks everything will be okay. But up till now there is nothing.
“After complaints, they brought a tank to be supplying water. After sometime, they said they want to dig borehole. We rejected saying that we weren’t sure if the environment itself was safe for another borehole.”
Ms Umeike said due to the pungent smell that pervaded the area, the manager of the filling station was informed and the station provided remediation plans. She explained that the station provided some of the affected residents with alternative water tanks and promised to replenish it periodically.
But she said that although the tank was supplied, the arrangement has since suffered setbacks as the water provided was supplied in an unhygienic way and it was barely sufficient for residents’ use.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited last Saturday, many residents complained of not having water to take their bath as the water had not been supplied for a while. Mr Nwelu said his plans to attend a function on Saturday was truncated by the unavailability of water.
The Scary Sign
In the middle of the crisis and apprehension caused by the pollution, one of the affected buildings on Abdullahi Street requested that their water pipes be cleaned and changed.
Ms Duru explained that a few people were invited to help flush out the contaminated water and cleanse the pipe. The exercise would later create apprehension around the area after water flushed out of the pipes into a nearby gutter caused a fire outbreak, PREMIUM TIMES gathered.
A bean cake seller on the street, who simply identified herself as ‘Mama Akara’, narrates the incident.
“I and other sellers were here frying our bean cake and other stuff. The fire didn’t come from my coal. We were more than three here cooking and frying things. They flushed the water from this building (No. 4, Ayetoro Street) into the gutter here and suddenly, the gutter was taken over by fire. I didn’t cause the fire. What we know is that there is fuel in the water.”
The trader explained that they learnt that the coal from one of the traders fell into the gutter and caused the fire. She however said that they were consequently told to make use of gas cooker, rather than coal.
The fire incident was confirmed by multiple residents of the area.
Poor Business For Water Vendors
For people involved in the business of selling water in jerry cans in the area, the development has dealt a big blow to their business.
Many of them told PREMIUM TIMES people now reject their water as the smell had become offensive.
Mr Wahab, an itinerant water supplier, popularly known as “Mai ruwa”, told this reporter that he barely sells half of the jerry cans he moves around with since the incident occurred.
“People don’t buy my water again and business has been very bad. The water smells of fuel and people complain a lot,” he said.
His colleague, another itinerant water supplier, affirmed Mr Wahab’s position saying people don’t accept their water anymore.
In Ayetoro street, PREMIUM TIMES gathered that an aged woman (identified as ‘Mama’) who owns a borehole facility and sells water for other residents now orders water from outside the community for her own domestic use.
“I am the one that supplies Mama her water now and look at her borehole and tank with water inside. But the water is filled with fuel,” Mr Wahab told our reporter.
Efforts to speak with the old woman were unsuccessful as our reporter was told that she has been very ill and “her people would not entertain press interview.”
Meanwhile, there is a sachet water production factory located on the sloppy street. Although PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify the claim, a resident hinted that it has since moved production site away from the street.
Total Denies Culpability
Ms Umeike has been the most vocal member of the community speaking against the development. This has led to a disagreement between her and the filling station dealer, Aleem Moruf.
According to a correspondence seen by PREMIUM TIMES, addressed to Ms Umeike’s lawyer by lawyer to the filling station dealer, Mr Moruf, the station dealer accused her (Ms Umeike) of making outrageous remediation demands.
The dealer, through his lawyer, also claimed that it has put remediation measures in place, “not because the station is culpable of the said pollution, but as a means of playing good host to the community.”
The letter claimed that LASEPA affirmed that there is an illegal pharmaceutical company, a sawmill and mechanic workshops with substantial utilisation of oil in the neighbourhood, raising suspicion that the filling station might not be the source of the pollution.
Despite repeated efforts, PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify the location of the illegal pharmaceutical firm and sawmill in the neighbourhood.
When this reporter contacted Mr Moruf, the dealer in charge of the Akoka filling station, he declined to give details of the incidence and safety measures taken so far, especially for the larger community.
Mr Moruf claimed that the case between him and Ms Umeike has been taken to court and directed this reporter to Total Head Office for clarification.
“No, no, no, no… it is already in court,” he said. “If you want details, go to Total head office in Victoria Island,” he said.
The court claim was however denied by Ms Umeike, who said there had been correspondences between her lawyer and Mr Moruf’s lawyer but it has not gotten to court. She also raised concerns about other poor residents of the neighbourhood who are still exposed to the risks with no safety measure in place.
Segun Toikumo, a staff of Total Nigeria Plc involved in the entire remediation talks, confirmed that Total was aware of the issue but declined to give any official information on the case. He told this reporter to contact the company’s Head of Corporate Affairs Department.
On Monday, this reporter visited Total’s head office in Victoria Island, Lagos.
Mabuyaku Albert, the company’s Corporate Affairs Manager, said the company had been involved in the case but affirmed that he would not comment on the case between Ms Umeike and the dealer because “it might likely be taken to court”.
When asked whether the company was responsible for the incident, especially as it concerns the larger community, he said the dealer would be in the best position to explain. “The dealer manages the station; the dealer is responsible for the management of the station,” he said.
He however didn’t debunk the claim that the operating licence for the station was obtained by Total, although he declined to give clarification.
LASEPA Keeps Mum
When this reporter visited LASEPA office in Ikeja, the agency also declined to comment on the issue, saying the filling station management may institute a legal action.
Adebola Shabi, the General Manager of LASEPA, told this reporter that although the agency had been involved in the case and had indeed monitored the remediation measures put in place by the dealer, he would not comment on the issue.
It is unclear whether community residents who are ignorant of the situation are still not exposed to dangers arising from the pollution.
Mr Abubakar, who runs a kiosk on Ayetoro street and lives in a large compound in the neighborhood, told this reporter many are still ignorant of the issues.
“We don’t use the water to cook anymore but I can’t say the same about others who don’t know the danger of these things,” he said.
Community Leader Speaks
The Community Development Association (CDA) chairman, Segun Adesanya, told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview that he was not officially involved in the case.
“My involvement is just as a community leader and you know Total is part of my CDA and the people too are part of my CDA. What I know is that government agencies have been coming.
“My own concern is to maintain peace. There is an agency responsible for it and I am sure they are aware. If they are aware, what will my own CDA be doing when I am trying to poke nose into what does not concern me. The essence of the CDA is to maintain peace and harmony within the community. My own is to maintain a neutral ground and I hear the matter is in court.”
PREMIUM TIMES observed that at the entrance of Ayetoro street, just opposite the building affected by the contamination, there is a new borehole facility erected for water supply.
Some residents said concerns have been raised over the purity of the water from the borehole source especially as it is located in the middle of the affected area. But Mr Adesanya said there is no cause for alarm.
“I don’t think so,” he said of speculation that the water may be contaminated. “You must show the scientific result to show that the water is contaminated. For me, I can’t base my judgement on something I can’t lay my hands on.
“That one you saw has been there and I don’t think anything is wrong with that water. You can see they just put ‘solar on it and water treatment plant’. So it is not for anybody to tell me the water is polluted and nobody has complained about it; you must show me result that the water is actually polluted. People have been using this water and it hasn’t affected them.”
Francis Duru, a medical practitioner and professor at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, while addressing the issue said the danger is in the chemical content of the contaminated water.
“Apparently there were leaks from the underground storage tanks into the surrounding soil. As it is, it’s going to be moving with water that is flowing beneath the soil and that has the likelihood of contaminating the water tanks. There are lot of underground water tanks in the area.
“The boreholes and underground water tanks would be contaminated and some are already contaminated because some of the houses in the neighborhood. Tests have been carried out to show.
“The danger in this is that petrol contains some chemicals. For example lead is in it, we have benzene, we have several other things. Some of these things are cancer-causing chemicals; they can cause cancer over a long period. Some of them can cause congenital malformations in children born in the area during the period; some can cause kidney failure, liver problems, brain problems and that’s why we are alarmed. It is a serious matter. And it could even happen years later.
“The proper safety measures should be taken to de-contaminate the area and monitor the health of the individuals here. Our intention is not to disrupt anybody’s business but to make sure everyone is safe. You can imagine water in a gutter burning like fuel.”
We ‘look up to God’
While some residents have since realised the danger inherent in the pollution and have taken measures to address its effect by not using the water, others still wallow in ignorance.
Mr Abubakar, one of the residents, told PREMIUM TIMES many people still consume the water and use it for domestic purposes.
“Many people feel because they have used it and there are no signs of illness, they are fine,” he told this reporter.
Mr Duru, the UNILAG professor, who is also a resident of the community, said the effects of the exposure may not show up until years later.
“It could happen after people have moved out of the neighbourhood and years later they begin to suffer from the exposure. Sometimes they would not even be able to link it to the fact that they stayed in an area with contaminated water in the past. And we do not want the filling station to sweep it under the carpet,” he says.
Ms Oluchi, on her part, prayed to God to protect them and other residents.
“It is getting worse. But ‘shebi’ you are a Yoruba man? We (will) just pray to God for protection. May God protect us,” she said..