Early this month, the Oyo State Government raised the alarm over the spillage of a poisonous chemical into a flowing river linking several communities. A visit by ALFRED OLUFEMI to the affected areas revealed an alarming environmental pollution, likely to cause extensive damage to the ecosystem, and the authorities’ alleged moves to downplay the life-threatening development
In the afternoon of Wednesday, August 31, Shakiru Omonisigun, an artisan in Onisigun, one of the remote villages in the Akinyele Local Government Area of Oyo State, saw a horrid sight that made him cringe.
Wearing a loose-fitting shirt over a brown trouser, the middle-aged man, who had lived in the area for decades, was walking leisurely past Iroko, a roadside village along Ibadan-Oyo highway, when he discovered a foamy substance on the surface of a flowing river that snaked through several communities and settlements in the LG.
Stunned and momentarily forgetting the effect of the scorching sun on his dark skin, he moved closer to get a better view of what he felt was an unusual happening.
It was then he noticed that a truck had been involved in an accident and was embedded in the thickets close to the river.
It was lying on its side and had been forcefully opened by the impact of the crash and the liquid substance it was conveying, emptied into the river.
As a confused Shakiru walked away, still trying to figure out what he saw, little did he know that the spilt substance was actually a hazardous chemical, and had travelled downstream, contaminating rivers and other freshwater bodies several kilometres from the actual spot of the accident.
Dead, floating fishes
Speaking with our correspondent later about what he saw, the artisan said it was later that he got to know that the foamy substance he saw was toxic, as he later discovered that fishes in neighbouring communities including, Onisigun, which is three kilometres from Iroko, have been killed in their hundreds and were seen floating.
He said, “I went back to the river and saw that the chemical had killed lots of fishes and the foamy substance, which was all over the place, looked like soap. I went to five villages where the river flows through and discovered that fishes there were also dead. When I got to my village, Onisigun, the same thing had happened.” He noted that the fishes looked rotten and unappealing for consumption.
Another resident, Saadat Jimoh, painted a more vivid picture of what she discovered days after the contamination.
The woman, who is in her late 40s, told PUNCH Investigations that she noticed that the water in a nearby stream, where residents usually fish, had turned black and the fishes caught were dead and extremely soft.
It was learnt that by the time the news spread, there was pandemonium in the area.
She said, “People trooped there when an alarm was raised. The fishes that were taken from there were not good for consumption because they were too soft and looked swollen.”
Jimoh said a few days later, some men in uniforms, whom she suspected to be from the Oyo State Government, visited the community to enquire if anyone had eaten the fish. She added, “We told them no. They left and warned us against eating the fish or using water from the stream to do anything.’’
How it all started
As earlier stated, the genesis of what aptly fits the description of a monumental environmental pollution was an accidented truck that emptied its toxic substance into a once pristine river with tributaries serving as sources of drinking water, irrigation for farms and fishing points in the LG.
Several residents of Iroko that spoke with our correspondent said they woke up to hear about the accident that took place along the highway, but did not know exactly when it happened.
However, a few said they saw officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps and the Oyo State Transport Management Agency at the scene of the accident trying to remove the truck.
From all indications, it was obvious that they are unaware of the magnitude of danger they were exposed to and the likely impact on their lives moving forward.
Confirming the incident, the FRSC Sector Commander in Oyo State, Joshua Adekanye, told our correspondent that the accident occurred when the chemical-laden truck was trying to avoid a truck that fell down earlier along the highway.
“The truck fell in the night and we were making arrangements to get a crane to remove it from the road. The accident involving the truck carrying chemicals took place in the early hours of the morning. The driver, while attempting to avoid colliding with the first truck, lost control, veered into the bush and had its content spilled into the river,” the FRSC boss explained.
An alert too late
Curiously, nothing was heard about the incident until seven days later, by which time, the possibility of people drinking the contaminated water, using it on their farms, or consuming the fishes, appeared high.
Recall that the incident took place on August 31, but the Oyo State Government, on September 7, issued an “alert” to residents of Ijaiye, Ido, Olowo-Igbo, Iseyin and Ibarapa communities, warning them against drinking water from their streams.
The warning was signed by the Commissioner for Information and Tourism, Wasiu Olatunbosun.
Referencing the Commissioner for Environment and Natural Resources, Abiodun Oni, he noted that a truck conveying chemical emptied its content into a drainage and it was eventually washed into streams passing through the five communities.
He stated, “Oni said the truck was involved in an accident at Iroko-Oyo highway while conveying substances presumed to be soap-making chemicals. Oni revealed that the soap-making chemical, which fell off into the drainage, ended up contaminating the streams passing through the five communities, hence impairing the quality of the water and rendering it toxic to humans and the environment at large.”
Olatunbosun warned farmers and fishermen to suspend every activity within the vicinity until all the water bodies had been tested and considered safe for consumption.
The commissioner gave an assurance that the state government was on top of the situation and that the environment ministry had swung into action.
“The ministry had dispatched some of its staff to the affected areas to continue to monitor the situation while also conducting water sampling, until the water can be ascertained to be safe for consumption,” he stated.
Chemical contamination, implications
According to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, chemical contamination is used to indicate situations where chemicals are either present where they should not be, or are at higher concentrations than they would naturally have occurred.
NIWA noted that the accumulation of these substances in aquatic environments can cause environmental problems.
On potential impacts of chemical contaminants on water quality, the institute noted that it can lead to loss of aquatic life, decreased water clarity, adding that some contaminants, such as mercury, may bioaccumulate in animal tissues and be carried to human consumers of the fish.
Chemical still litter accident scene
When PUNCH Investigations visited the accident scene (source of contamination), which Google Earth, a mapping tool or geo-browser that accesses satellite and aerial imagery, showed is located exactly 48 kilometres from Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, the truck responsible for the contamination had been removed.
One would have expected that with the heavy vehicular movement experienced on the busy highway, the soap-making chemical would have faded or washed away by rain, but that was not the case.
Our correspondent observed that the chemical, which had a yellowish hue, was still on the highway, and had caked, forming patches along the stretch.
Not far from the spot is a bridge with its concrete embankment heavily stained by the yellowish chemical.
The splashes, our correspondent noted, would require extra efforts before they can be totally removed.
Also conspicuous were yellowish sludge still deposited along the banks of the river. The lines it mapped out clearly showed the movement of the chemical as it journeyed, depositing its toxins into water bodies on its path.
Tracing the pollution
Using details on the alert released by the state government and Google Earth, our correspondent tracked other neighbouring communities situated 90 kilometres away from Iroko, the initial source of the chemical pollution.
With the help of locals and commercial motorcyclists plying the affected communities, PUNCH Investigations was able to trace the downwards movement of water from the contaminated river.
It was gathered that the river, which flows westward from Iroko, passed through Ose River to Onisigun, Olowo-Igbo and Ijaiye communities, into other smaller settlements.
Residents of the listed communities told our correspondent that though they don’t drink water from the river, they can’t say the same for the other communities down the path.
Sixty-five-year-old RahmatAjibade, a native of Olowo-Igbo, said her family of seven, rely on a borehole dug not far from their house as a source of water supply.
“We don’t drink water from the river. There is a borehole over there where most people fetch and drink from, but we can’t speak for other communities who may have no other alternative,” she said.
Despite her claims, PUNCH Investigations discovered that they might not be entirely free from ingesting toxins from the deposited chemicals as reports showed that such could permeate groundwater.
The United State Environmental Protection Agency affirmed that groundwater and surface water are interconnected.
EPA noted that if there is a water supply well near a source of contamination, the well runs the risk of becoming contaminated.
“If there is a nearby river or stream, that water body may also become polluted by the groundwater”, it added.
The agency explained that just as groundwater generally moves slowly, so do contaminants in groundwater.
EPA stated, “Groundwater and contaminants can move rapidly through fractures in rocks. Fractured rock presents a unique problem in locating and controlling contaminants because the fractures are generally randomly spaced and do not follow the contours of the land surface or the hydraulic gradient. “Contaminants can also move into the groundwater system through macropores—root systems, animal burrows, abandoned wells, and other systems of holes and cracks that supply pathways for contaminants.
“In areas surrounding pumping wells, the potential for contamination increases because water from the zone of contribution, a land area larger than the original recharge area, is drawn into the well and the surrounding aquifer. Some drinking water wells actually draw water from nearby streams, lakes, or rivers. Contaminants present in these surface waters can contribute contamination to the groundwater system.”
Farming community left with no alternative
Even though residents of Olowo-Igbo, Iroko and Onisigun claimed they don’t have any significant use of the water, the implication of the pollution is not lost on others, especially farmers in the Ajeja community.
KehindeAgboola is one of them and the only dam serving the community was affected by the contamination.
According to Google Earth, Ajeja dam is located 10 kilometres from Iroko, the source of the contamination.
Agboola, who depends on water from the two million cubic metres dam, to irrigate his farm, has been distraught since he became aware of the havoc caused by the chemical.
When our correspondent visited Ajeja, the farmer, who said he just returned from his farm, held a plate of boiled yam laced with palm oil and salt.
He revealed that the contamination had created an atmosphere of trepidation and fear in the agrarian community.
He said, “Five days ago, we saw that the Ajeje dam was creating foamy substances and it was as high as a house. Bubbles were carried by the wind and floated around the environment. Fishes were dying. People were scared because they had not seen something like that before.
“We asked questions and were told that a vehicle carrying chemicals had an accident at Iroko. There is a possibility that the chemicals washed into the dam,” he said.
Agboola noted that since the dam stopped being foamy, residents have resumed their regular activities.
Asked if he was aware that the state government warned residents against fishing or carrying out farming activities with water in the area, Agboola said he was not aware.
The man, who by now appeared angry, said farmers in the area depend so much on the dam and queried the rationale behind issuing an alert late.
The traditional head of the Ajeja community, Olasupo Fashola, said he was shocked to see the level of foam on the dam surface.
He said, “I was called to see what was happening at the dam. Since I don’t go there frequently, I did not know. But three days ago, when I was travelling to Ibadan, I saw it. The foam was too much. I was afraid.’’
He corroborated Agboola’s claim that bubbles were seen flying around, adding, “A lot of children were playing with it.
The community leader noted that the bizarre development attracted people from neighbouring communities such as Ajibade and Olosa Oko, who came to see things by themselves out of curiosity.
Like Agboola, Fashola believed that since the surface of the dam is now clear, it poses no danger and that people can go about their farming activities.
However, he was alarmed when our correspondent told him that based on information from the state government, the chemical spilled into the river was toxic and caused the dam to foam. With a troubled expression, he said, “It is the government that will have to come to our aid. We need their help now.”
Cut off from communication
Since the Oyo State government included Iseyin in the red alert, our correspondent visited Ikere Gorge Dam, the biggest in the South-West, to ascertain the presence of the soap-making chemical there.
The dam, going by Google Earth estimation, is 90 kilometres from Iroko. The dam, which has a reservoir capacity of 690 million cubic metres, was initiated by the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo and it officially came into use in 1983.
It was basically constructed by the Ogun-Osun River Basin Development Authority to tap into the water resources of the Ogun River basin. Ikere is also home to a community of fishermen, who have lived there for decades with their families.
However, the residents appear to be cut off from basic information from the city, as the community is plagued by lack of electricity supply and poor telecommunications services.
Ironically, the dam, PUNCH Investigations learnt, houses an abandoned hydro-power project, which if it was completed, would have provided uninterrupted power supply to Ikere and beyond.
Residents, especially those living around the Spillway Camp, told PUNCH Investigation that they have made several appeals to the state government for intervention, but had yet to get any response.
A fisherman from Benue State, Aliyu Yusuf, who had lived in the community for 30 years, said he noticed yellow patches on the surface of the dam, adding that he was surprised that the state government had yet to do anything since the incident took place.
“We don’t know the danger we are in or what is coming ahead. We really don’t know,” Yusuf said with exasperation.
Drinking from an unsafe dam
A worried Yusuf said they sometimes fetch water from the dam to bathe, wash clothes and occasional drink as the only borehole in Ikere, provided by the government, is solar-powered and had become unreliable.
He revealed that years back, before the borehole was installed, the community suffered from a disease outbreak that made children urinate uncontrollably.
The sickness, he told PUNCH Investigations, was traced to the bad quality of water from the dam.
“Now that this has happened, we need help. We are many here and this dam serves a huge purpose. We don’t want to suffer any sickness that can kill us,” the fisherman appealed.
A community health practitioner, Yekeen Kolawole, who said he was unaware of the contamination, blamed the communication lapse on the unavailability of telecommunication services in the area.
“I don’t know if there is any chemical contamination because there is no mobile network here. If there is any, we would have been well informed. We have phones but we can’t use them,” he said.
Expressing fears, Kolawole also appealed to the relevant authorities to act fast, to avert any danger likely to be posed by the chemical to residents. “If there is network service, we won’t die untimely. Help us appeal to the government to work on this,” Kolawole appealed.
Based on extensive research carried out by PUNCH Investigations, the company that owns the chemical being conveyed by the truck as well as the driver violated multiple sections of the Nigerian laws including environmental law meant to protect the ecosystem.
The Harmful Waste (special criminal provisions) Act of 2004 prohibits unlawful carrying, dumping or depositing of harmful waste in the air, land or waters of Nigeria.
It stated, “(Anyone that) carries, deposits, dumps or causes to be carried, deposited or dumped, or is in possession for the purpose of carrying, depositing or dumping, any harmful waste on any land or in any territorial waters or contiguous zone or Exclusive Economic Zone of Nigeria or its inland waterways; or transports or causes to be transported or is in possession for the purpose of transporting any harmful waste; or imports or causes to be imported or negotiates for the purpose of importing a harmful waste shall be guilty of a crime under this Act.”
While section 6 of the law prescribes life imprisonment for offenders as well as the forfeiture of land or anything used to commit the offence, Section 12 specified the civil liability of any offender.
“The offender would be liable to persons who have suffered injury as a result of his offending act,” it stated. The Act further noted that the offender is liable whether the content was either disposed of or abandoned.
Similarly, the Sea Fisheries Act makes it illegal to take or harm fishes within Nigerian waters by use of explosives, poisonous or toxic substances.
Section 10 of the Act makes destruction of fishes punishable with a fine of N50, 000 or two years imprisonment.
In the same vein, the Inland Fisheries Act, which focuses on the protection of water habitats and species, prohibits the taking or destruction of fish by harmful means.
The offender, according to the legislation, will be punishable with a fine of N3, 000 or an imprisonment term of two years or both.
Likewise, Section 245, 246, 247, 248, 249, 250, 251 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act, which addresses Offences against Public Health, contains provisions for the prevention of public health hazards and for environmental protection.
Water fouling, according to the criminal code, is punishable by a jail term of six months.
“Any person who corrupts or fouls the water of any spring, stream, well, tank, reservoir, or place, so as to render it less fit for the purpose for which it is ordinarily used, is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for six months,” the law stipulates.
‘Mount pressure on govt to act’
A lawyer that specialises in environmental issues, Daniel Makolo, described the discharge of chemical substances into the river as harmful, stressing that labelling it as an accident was not tenable.
He urged residents of the affected communities to hold the state government accountable for the contamination.
Makolo said, “There is harmful waste management act. It is well spelt out for waste management and the rest. When that happens, it is unlawful and an offence under the law because humanity needs to be protected.
“Our collective humanity equally affects vegetation. Even the ants and earthworms need to be protected because they all have their own values. That is why we have a sustainable development goal that is being pushed forward. Was it the accident that emptied the toxic content? That’s the reason why the community should mount pressure on the government.”
The lawyer was more concerned about the danger the chemical poses, noting that despite the alert, uninformed citizens could continue farming or fishing to the detriment of people in and outside the state.
“It’s the lives of people that I am concerned about. You will be shocked that those fishes will find their way out; it will leave Oyo to Kano or Port Harcourt, and you will discover that you are killing people for no just cause,” he added.
Water engineer faults Oyo govt
A Water and Environmental engineer, Temple Oriake, wondered why it took the state government seven days to publicly alert communities to the lurking danger.
Speaking with our correspondent, Oriake blamed the gap in communication to the absence of a water regulatory commission.
He said, “This is because most of the states don’t have a regulatory commission that oversees the quality of water consumed by the people, be it a stream or river. Some of the water boards or water corporations have rivers where they draw water from. The only difference is that they treat it before supplying it.
“If there is a regulatory body that checks the status of water bodies and they are proactive, things like this would have been dealt with early enough.’’
The engineer submitted that the poisonous chemicals would contain metals harmful to humans, noting that the fact that it killed fishes showed a possibility that it would be harmful to humans.
“The people could be using it for different reasons. If there is any disease outbreak, they will still not link it to the water they drink,” he said.
Apart from the health implication, Oriake noted that the contamination would also have economic implications, as the source of some people’s livelihood would be affected, leading to further impoverishment of residents.
He said, “You can imagine what would happen if those people don’t have any other alternatives. They would have to look for other ways to survive. It is already a bad situation for people living in the communities.’’
On sanctions or punishment applicable to those found culpable in the contamination incident, Oriake said, “Whoever is responsible for the pollution is expected to do an entire cleanup of the river. Not just the cleanup, they have to face sanctions as applicable in the relevant laws. This would serve as a deterrent to others that pollute water bodies across the country.”
Police, government ‘shield’ perpetrators
During the course of the investigation, PUNCH Investigations tried to identify or track the company responsible for the water pollution, but the efforts were frustrated by the police and the state government.
During an earlier interaction with the FRSC Sector Commander, Adekanye, he revealed that although the young man that accompanied the truck (motor boy) died instantly, the rescue team was able to rescue the driver and took him to a hospital for medical treatment.
He said the accident was reported at the Moniya Police Station, and the truck was later towed.
Asked about the current status of the case, the identity of the truck owner or company that owned the chemical being conveyed, Adekanye said, “Since the police took the vehicle, I want to believe they have got the owner or company involved.”
Armed with the little information gathered from the FRSC boss, our correspondent visited the Moniya Police Station to possibly get a detailed background of the incident.
Interestingly, it was observed that the truck was not on the premises.
When our correspondent met with the Divisional Police Officer in charge of the case, Jacob Popogbe, and asked for the name of the driver, company involved and details of the case, he referred him to the Oyo State police spokesperson, Adewale Osifeso.
“I have given him (Osifeso) all the necessary information about the case,” he said.
Contacted, the police spokesperson said that the case had been charged to court. He, likewise, refused to disclose the identity of those charged to court, details of the case or the court handling the case.
Oyo govt silent
The state Commissioner for Information and Culture, Wale Olatunbosun, also refused to speak about the parties responsible for the chemical spill or the outcome of tests carried out on the river to ascertain its level of contamination and safety.
He referred our correspondent to the Commissioner for Environment, Abiodun Oni. On his part, Oni told our correspondent to send enquiries via a text message to his mobile after an introduction and purpose of reaching out clearly stated.
As of the time this report was filed, the commissioner had yet to respond to calls to his mobile nor the text messages sent.