GENTLY, thick dark cloud spreads into the atmosphere in Ogijo, a suburb of Shagamu in Ogun State, and later becomes soot and settles on wall of the buildings in the neighbourhood, making each houses look like an over-used kitchen. The residents of Ogijo are not spared from the spreading pollutant. And the sicknesses linked to inhalation of toxic fume has often been significantly recorded in the community. Yet the culprits, African Foundry Limited (AFL) and other companies mostly owned by foreigners, continue to emit injurious substance into the atmosphere, even as they profit from the vulnerability of their hosts, who realised only too late the danger constituted by the presence of steel companies in their community.
OLUGBENGA ADANIKIN, who recently visited Ogijo, reports.
Ogijo, a small town sandwiched between Shagamu, Ogun State and Ikorodu, Lagos State is once a peaceful and safe community. That was in the past until African Foundry Limited (AFL) established a factory in the community.
Everyday during production, the factory with an annual production target of 500 million ton of steel, emits poisonous gas capable of shortening lives of residents.
Already the neighbours are threatened by cancer, lung infections and respiratory disorder, according to medical experts who spoke to the ICIR. Recently, two deaths have been recorded, including that of a three-year old infant.
“We inhale poisonous gases and carbon 24 hours. My first son, who is 10 years old has been admitted thrice in the hospital for asthma as a result of this problem,” said Mr. Babarere Solomon, a landlord, who eventually received compensation from the polluting firm to relocate from the community.
In 2015, impact of an explosion at African Foundry Limited (AFL), Ogijo damaged the water-closet in his restroom.
The explosion also caused a ceiling fan to drop on a child, who was busy with his school assignment, the landlord said . A sharp iron also escaped from the blast, broke the glasses and wounded a boy sleeping on the bed.
When Babarere and a few other landlords no longer could cope, they approached the management of AFL to find solution to the problem they caused, but no one paid them attention. So after exhausting all options, the aggrieved landlords went to court to seek redress.
Then AFL decided to compensate residents with a sum of N20, 000, N15, 000 and N6, 000 according to the level of damage, while they offered to buy over properties close to the factory including schools at the price some considered ridiculous.
The affected landlords who had no choice, jumped at the compensation offer. It was later some of them started wondering if the so called compensation was commensurate to the level of daily damage to their health.
When the ICIR reporter visited, he could feel vibrations distance away from the factory, as thick black smokes escaped into the atmosphere.
Madam Rachael, a resident was seen loading her properties into a waiting truck with support of three men. Her residence was a short distance to AFL perimeter fence. Just opposite her home is a deserted church with its roof completely removed and a few other bungalows. Madam Rachael was excited they were leaving eventually.
“It’s a prayer answered that we are finally leaving. We have been told that if we continue in this area, in the next 10 years, we will all have cancer because of the smokes,” she said.
According to her, many of their pleading to the Ogun State government to intervene fell on deaf ears.
Through court settlement, some landlords were able to receive compensation that allows them relocated. But only property owners within 100 metres away from fence of the AFL were rewarded.
Mr. Ademola Adenuga, Chairman, Health and Pollution Committee, Ogijo Community Development Association said the cause of the pollution should be completely eliminated.
Demolished Houses and Churches in Ogijo Community
There are 140 waste recycling industries in Ogun State, operating with little or no care for environmental safety. About 15 of these are located in Afisuru Community, Ajose Community, Jagunmolu community and other communities in Ogijo town, Shagamu Local Government Area. A few of the foundry companies identified during the investigation include Tech High Profile Limited, Monarch Industries, Real Infrastructures Limited, African Foundries Limited, Phoenix limited and others. There are also aluminium producing firms such as Everest limited, MRI, Metal World (aluminum ingot and lead) as well as Orbit and Kew Metal.
Residents including pregnant women and children are are daily exposed to poisonous gases and toxic wastes from the foundries scattered around the town.
With the high number of foundries in Ogijo and their continuous discharge of lead poisoning, “our lives are endangered,” Adenuga said.
The foundry companies are mostly owned by Indians and Lebanese who seem to have less concern for public safety and the protection of ecosystem as investigation by the ICIR reveals. The evidence of this neglect can be seen on the blackened soil; plants covered with dark soot, and the cloud mixed with thick smoke – everyday.
Prof. Olobayo Kunle, the Director General of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), said heavy metals have serious health hazards, especially when they are being released as free radicals.
He warned that if such materials get into the body system of a human, they become carcinogenic. “By just sitting in an area with exhaust fumes over the years, your risk of cancer is higher than mine. So, I know that the risks of cancer among the residents of Ogijo will be higher than that of the general population.”
Though, Nigeria signed international treaties, including the Conference of Parties (COPs) to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change impacts, little efforts were made to achieve reduction. . FG had disclosed that $10 billion per annum would be needed to meet the nation’s target in reducing carbon emission.
Trading by danger zone
Yet some residents still risk their lives by trading around the firms. One of the traders said she has no option because she has to earn a living. It is even worse for those who work in the factory. And all efforts to make the company stop polluting the environment is vain.
The community association tried to make the companies address the problem, but it’s been futile. The companies promised to adopt longer furnace so it won’t affect us but they are not sincere,” the trader told the ICIR.
“The ones I pity mostly are the little children around,” said a male customer, who sat close to the trader.
“The same carbon emission killed a man, who built his house beside that tyre company before it was sold,” he said pointing to direction of the deceased’s home.
At the hotel nearby where this reporter lodged, one could see fumes escaping freely into the air at night while residents were fast asleep. And this occurs every day of the week except days when the foundries are short of iron scraps, the raw material used in foundries.
Concern over pregnant women, nursing mothers and children in the community
At the hospital nearby, women and medical officials bitterly complained about the pollution, and its harmfulness to their children.
A nursing mother, Mrs. Adeshewa Jegede, who brought her son for post-natal care was obviously aggrieved. She did not hide her emotion when speaking to the ICIR.
“I learnt that exposure to this fume blocks the lung of children, this is so bad and not even fair at all,” she said.
Mrs. Oluwayemisi Ogunyemi, a Community Health Extension Worker at the facility, said though the emission is dangerous to health, patients have to endure until a new health centre is built for the community.
“We have to endure for now. I am always very worried about the children and pregnant women here but there is nothing we can do.”
Asked if inhaling of the carbon could affect the pregnant women, she said the possibility is high and also for the child though the baby is in the mother’s foetus.
“Most of the time, parents bring their child for cough infections except that there is nothing serious but children must be well protected from the exposure.”
Mrs. Adenike Jolaosho, a pharmacy technician is responsible for dispensing drugs at the PHC. She said though it may be difficult to relocate the health centre now, but it is not impossible if the community leaders and the state government show greater commitment to the welfare of the people.
Residents groan over endless pollution
Mr. Adenuga, a landlord appeared to be among the most outspoken home owners who started residing in Ogijo since May 1992. “With my experience and for the longer period I have been in Ogijo, the biggest challenge residents are facing is this pollution from all the iron steel companies. Currently, Ogijo is accommodating over 15 iron steel companies and none of them is controlling their pollution in terms of water, air contamination even vibration from the heavy machines. ”
Dissatisfied with the lingering environmental challenge, the community association petitioned the Federal Ministry of Environment, Ogun State Government as well as the National Environmental Safety and Regulatory Agency (NESREA) and the Ogun State Environmental Protection Agency (OGEPA).
Findings showed that NESREA repeatedly visited the communities including the foundry industries after series of petitions. Top officials from the environment ministry both at the federal and state levels also visited the community including officials from the ministry of labour and productivity, yet the situation remained unchanged. This eventually, led to a court action and the AFL was sued by the community.
“Nothing has been done till today, until we took them to court in 2016 after writing series of letters since 2011 to all the relevant federal and state regulators and ministries,” said Mr. Babarere. He acknowledged positive roles of the former Environment Minister, Amina Mohammed, whom he said was in good contact with the community with a promise to send a delegation but alleged that the team sent failed to turn-up until NESREA revisited.
Chairman, Shagamu South Local Government, Olugbenga Hassan, whose office is about 100 metres away from the most popular foundry industry claimed ignorance of the environmental pollution.
“The people living in the environment have not complained,” he said. I cannot work on speculations. There should be a written document,” Hassan added.
Worst Environmental Hazards in Jagunmolu Community
The environmental situation in Afisuru and Jagunmolu communities are far worse and more pathetic than what one could ever imagine. Most landlords have relocated due to the severe pollution in these communities. The bare ground has turned black – mixed with iron particles and foundry wastes.
Down the rough road is a foundry company popularly called Real Infrastructure Foundry. The metal factory is located opposite an uncompleted building. At the other side are a number of residential buildings with brown roofs. According to residents, the roofs became brown due to constant spread of iron filings blown from low perimeter fence of the industry. Within the fenced area are different machineries including iron melting and iron crushing equipment. These are directly located by the fence such that it is easier for wind to blow around the particles of rusty irons.
Traders have their tents and kiosks erected opposite the firm, inhaling toxic substance as they eke out daily living.
Most landlords in the community have the windows of their houses firmly closed, still that could not help much.
“There is no day that I will not drink ginger or garlic tea both morning and night to suppress the impact, likewise my family, but for how long will I be doing that, what of those that can’t afford all I do?” said Mayor Michael Ayeni, Chairman of Jagunmolu community.
“We have visited some of the companies including Real Infrastructure and they promised to install new machineries to reduce the impact of their operation on people. They said as soon as it is done, they will contact us to see it and how it works, but ever since then, we have not gotten any invitation.”
Ayeni said Tec High Profile Limited, a tyre recycling company just by Real Infrastructure is also a death trap to all the people living in that area. A lot of people had packed from there. A lot of landlords have abandoned their projects including myself because the carbon is everywhere on leaves and houses.
“I can’t say they really felt concerned about the health of people living around here. What they are after is profit and we can’t fight them because we believe government gave them license to operate.”
He narrated the story of a deceased landlord and a member of the association of landlords, who packed newly into his house in 2015 but died three months after, as a result of the inhalation of smokes from the firms.
“There is a chemical which they sometime release , you just have to lock your window because it is choking and poisonous. It smells like Hydrogen Sulphate (HS04) or rotten egg.”
Alleged arm-twisting of host community to take land, home ownership
It was really a mixture of grief and excitement at the Shagamu High Court when AFL and host communities agreed to settle out of court. This was a strategy allegedly used by the firm to outsmart the landlords since AFL is reluctant to relocate its factory.
According to the residents, after being confronted with clear evidences, AFL offered to buy-off some properties about 100 meters away from the perimeter fencing of the AFL. Over 100 houses were allegedly taken over by AFL with compensations ranging from N4 million to N15 million.
Though, some landlords were initially against the idea because they the solution was unsustainable as pollution from the firm is likely to linger so long the firms exist. Residents claimed to have inhabited the community earlier before African foundry commenced operation, therefore the firm needs to comply with best environmental safety standard, or leave.
But, a number of landlords, who allegedly agreed to the out-of-court settlement purportedly convinced others to accept the offer since they could no longer bear the pains arising from the pollution.
Findings revealed that some of the houses were already being demolished as at the time this reporter visited the community. The buildings included churches, flat and bungalow apartments, schools, hotel and shops. There are other properties already marked for demolition and compensation, which owners are not aware of yet.
Prior to the compensation, host communities had conducted independent analysis to examine water, soil as well as blast impacts arising from the foundry company. The community went further to seek court action against the foundry company at the Shagamu High Court. The judge ruled that both parties should settle out of court when the landlord produced overwhelming evidences against the foundry.
The community sued the management of African foundry for pollution, and it was during judicial process in Shagamu that both parties were advised to settle out of court. While the community was considering that option, the management of AFL approached them to buy the properties since the people cannot live with the pollution. “
As for Adenuga, who is Vice Chairman, Glorious Area Community Development Council, he condemned the idea of compensation, saying it was a smart move to chase the host communities away from their properties.
According to him, rather than the erring companies to eradicate pollutions, they decided to call on ‘cabals’ in the community and offer to buy their buildings as compensation.
“The company paid them to relocate, and the funny thing is that the people are selling their properties at a cheaper rate to management of African foundry due to health concerns and the pollution which could lead to cancer at the long run. So that’s why everyone is afraid and they agreed to sell their properties at giveaway prices. So I won’t say it was compensation.”