© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
INVESTIGATION: How industrial foundry operations endanger lives in Ogun community – Part 2
This is the part two of the investigation published yesterday.
OLUGBENGA ADANIKIN, who recently visited Ogijo, reports.
PROFESSOR of Toxicology, Professor Uche Osunkwo, who shared his views on the implications of human exposure to toxics, said formation of cancer can be chemically induced, and sometimes by micro-organisms or spontaneous genetic mutations.
“So exposure of the local communities produces potential carcinogens and this should be discouraged.
“Industrial development is good for the country, and it should be encouraged, but there is need to ensure environmental safety by re-orientating the government on associated vices caused by foundry industries,” he said.
Osunkwo, who is the National President, Nigerian Society for Toxicological Sciences, said there was a need for public awareness on the dangers faced by the residents of Ogijo because they are vulnerable to being infected with cancer.
The raw materials used in foundries contain toxicological substances, and human’s exposure to it put the residents at a great risk, he said.
“It could be diseases related to blood, reducing the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, carbon dioxide. The diseases may be related to the respiratory system beginning from the nostrils, the exchange that takes place between the lungs and the blood and it may spread to other parts of the body.
“It is not normal for high concentration of lead; I won’t say low level because no level is acceptable. It is not part of the physiology of the body.”
Findings from soil, water tests
Both soil and water samples taken from the affected community were subjected to scientific study at the NIPRD, an agency under the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), to ascertain the true state of their water and soil. The result analysis with reference no: NIPRD/01/03/CCPF/327 and Certificate no: NIPRD/MCQC/Consult/2018/02 after five weeks revealed the soil is poisoned with lead but the underground water is still of acceptable standard. “The soil is polluted with Lead. The lead ought not to be more than 10, so it’s much in the soil. The soil too is rich in iron and calcium. If they plant anything, it will grow well,” said NIRPD Head of Department, Medicinal Chemistry and Quality Control, Dr. Mrs. Kudirat Mustapha.
Nonetheless, rural communities in Ogijo close to the riverside no longer fetch drinking water from the stream because blackish wastes were dumped indiscriminately across the communities including the river path, thereby polluting the water. It is only the pastoralists who are ignorant of the danger of soot-covered leaves graze their cattle on the poisoned field.
Reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO) have shown that after HIV/Aids, the next fast killer is pollution. Though all regions of the world are affected but populations in low-income cities are the most affected, the report stated.
A research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement revealed that 5.5 million people worldwide die prematurely annually as a result of air pollution. And according to the 2016 WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database report, 98 per cent of cities in low- and middle income countries with more than 100 000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.
Key findings from Nigeria’s latest Demographic and Health Survey showed that, respiratory problems and rapid breathing contributes more to infant mortality in the country. According to the report, two per cent of under-five children in the country have symptoms of Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI) from which only 35 per cent were taken to health facility.
Experts also have found that excessive exposure to carcinogenic materials such as lead, heavy metals from foundry industries could alter human genes made up of DNA sequences. These are considered fragile and as a result could cause formation of cancerous tissues in human system.
“As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them,” says latest WHO report.
Why regulatory agencies are ineffective
With this available knowledge on the danger of pollution, residents expected that government should be concerned enough to address the problem promptly.
This reporter gathered that government officials had held meeting with the community association in the past and subsequently visited the firms to conduct the assessment. The meeting produced several publications on pollution of the area which were reproduced in six national dailies. Subsequently, the erring firms were sealed, but were reopened a week later.
Example was the case of a tyre recycling firm that was shut repeatedly by OGEPA but was re-opened shortly. The situation is similar in the case of Real Infrastructure and others.
“All those that have been visiting were being bribed by the companies,” a member of the landlord association alleged.
According to him, the lack of concern from the government led the community to go to court. Eventually, the judge advised the parties to settle outbox court which led to the option of demolition and compensation.
The NESREA 2007 Act which is currently undergoing an amendment in the National Assembly only permits the agency to award a meagre sum as sanctions to defaulters. Despite that the agency is mandated under Section 20 sub section 1 (a),(b),(c),(d),(e) and (f) of the Act to set specifications and set environmental standards, the regulation itself has failed, not to mention poor enforcement.
Section 2 of the NESREA Act called for the establishment of monitoring stations to locate sources of air pollution and determine their actual or potential danger, while Section 3 states that, “A person who violates the regulations made pursuant to subsection (1) of this section commits an offence and shall on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding N200,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both such fine and imprisonment and an additional fine of N20,000 for every day the offence subsists.
“(4) Where an offence under subsection (1) of this section is committed by a body corporate, it shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding N2, 000,000 and an additional fine of N50,000 for every day the offence subsists.”
But the law is obsolete and weak such that erring companies would rather pollute the environment than comply with safe environmental practice. Some of these laws though are currently under review at the National Assembly.
Moreover, in 2009, the agency as part of environmental compliance measures, bought two mobile air monitoring equipment. One was positioned in Port Harcourt, the other in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) but till date, it is not functioning due to calibration problem. Almost a decade after it was purchased, it is still parked, covered with dusts under a tree in the premises of the regulatory agency.
Reactions from the accused firms
AFL denied our reporter access beyond the security post. Effort to meet with the management was unsuccessful. But a senior staff, Mr. Kunle Aregbesola, said the organisation has taken over all the properties near the foundry and demolished them.
On the pollution, he said people ought to have know that they should not build houses near industrial estate. Notwithstanding, he said the company is paying off property owners in order move away from the factory.
Attempt to speak to an official whose number was obtained on AFL website was also rebuffed. Initially, he promised to get in touch but never did. When he was contacted a week later, he said he was in Dubai and could not respond.
Meanwhile, the Managing Director, Real Infrastructures Limited, Mr. Gupta Subash told ICIR his firm was polluting the environment but argued that pollution in such area was inevitable. Subash, who spoke through his Head of Human Resources and Administrative Officer, Mr. Rahmon Olanrewaju, acknowledged that the communities had written to them severally and as a result the company has decided to upgrade their equipment.”Though we have not done that to the satisfactory level yet, but we promise to keep working on it.
“I am not saying we are perfect. We are trying. The technology we just fixed is working but not giving us perfection in terms of what we actually wanted. We started in 2015 to be commissioned July 2016 but we couldn’t get some of the materials across due to Forex. We later overcame it; did the test-run and it was okay, it was filtering those particles that go into the air to make the fumes cleaner but it’s not perfect yet.”
To that end, he said the company gives free medical service to the host communities as part of their corporate social responsibilities.
He walked this reporter through the dusty path to the melting facility. The heat across the iron melting plant could be felt. Some of the employees were wearing worn-out safety boots while the casual staffs were seen with ordinary footwear. A few of them wore helmets. Prior to the inspection, he showed this reporter a list of boots and safety wear sample already submitted for supply to the firm. These safety wears, he said, were meant for the company’s staffs while contractor in charge of the ‘casual staffs’ is expected to provide safety kits.
NESREA blames inefficiency on weak regulations
Director General, National Environmental Safety and Regulatory Agency (NESREA), Dr. Lawrence Anukam, admitted he knew nothing about the severe environmental situation in Ogijo.
He however, expressed frustration at the law which for years allowed polluting companies to pay only a paltry sum as fine. “A big company will pay the penalty than to avoid the pollution.”
But with the amendment of the law on the way, Anukam said judges are now allowed to sanction defaulters using their discretion and magnitude of the offence committed.
On the abandoned air monitoring equipment, he said, the machine functioned for a while until it broke down, and it has not been fixed yet.
“Some discussions are ongoing on how best we can fix it. We cannot carry this big equipment back to the country and we have come to that realisation that any type of new equipment we will use here, we must ensure there is proper provision for calibration.
“if it is very functional, it will help in our mobile air quality monitoring activities, especially where we recognised hotspots,” he said.
Ogun State government and Ogun Environmental Protection Agency Confused over Pollution Management
In the past, Ogun State Environmental Protection Agency (OGEPA),has sealed the erring firms, but it was only for a short time because the culprits quickly paid the fines and commenced operation.
Two directors, who pleaded for anonymity, admitted knowledge of the pollution in the community. They said the major culprits were closed down at some point. But no one claimed responsibility for re-issuing the operational licenses to the affected firms.
“Their file is there,” referring to the sanctioned foundries. “It is what we see that we will write. They wrote to get environmental approval but I didn’t give them because they didn’t merit it. The report is there,” he said.
So how did the firms get approval to operate? He could not provide a clear answer, rather he insisted he didn’t give any approval. “Come and see their file. I said they should not be given because they were polluting.”
The reporter obliged him to see the said files but the director changed his mind, saying they were official documents.
His claim was however contradicted by another director in the same agency who admitted that the erring companies paid levies and were later directed to adopt safer standards.
Asked if it was possible to revoke their licenses, he said: “It is not possible. In a place where there is proper planning, people must not build near such plants. We as government, we accept our blame. The mistake is from the town planners who gave them the land.
“If you know this is the kind of operation that will take place there, residence should not be located in the same location.”
Government declined comment
The Commissioner for Information Ogun State, Dayo Adeneye, said he was unaware of the incident but referred the reporter to the commissioner for environment. The latter declined to speak.
Senator Buruji Kashamu, representing Ogun East Senatorial District where the pollution occurred did not respond to sms sent to his phone.
Also, a member of the House of Representative, Hon. Oladipupo Adebutu ignored messages sent to him. Similarly, emails sent to their email contacts found on the official website of the National Assembly (NASS) failed to deliver.