More than 100 people were killed overnight in an explosion at an illegal oil refining depot on the border of Nigeria’s Rivers and Imo states, a local government official and an environmental group said on Saturday.
“The fire outbreak occurred at an illegal bunkering site, and it affected over 100 people who were burnt beyond recognition,” the state commissioner for petroleum resources, Goodluck Opiah, said.
It's the second deadly explosion at an illegal refinery in Nigeria in just six months after 25 people died at another site in Rivers state in October and the tragedy has cast a further spotlight on both the human and environmental cost of these illegal refineries.
Opiah said that the government was committed to ending oil theft in the state. The commissioner stated the order to arrest the owner of the illegal refinery, Okenze Onyenwoke, which claimed the multiple lives, remained valid. He called on the people to collaborate with the Government in the fight against the menace. He added that the government would no longer treat those who engaged in an illegal oil refinery with kid-glove, promising that no matter how stubborn the challenge of illegal oil business was, it remained surmountable.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari echoed the commissioner’s sentiments in a statement that he would intensify the clampdown on illegal refineries after what he described as a "catastrophe" and "national disaster".
Unemployment and poverty in the oil-producing Niger Delta have made illegal crude refining an attractive business but with deadly consequences. Crude oil is tapped from a web of pipelines owned by major oil companies and refined into products in makeshift tanks.
The process of refinement is hazardous in a number of ways. A fire is lit in a pit under a cauldron and the crude oil is heated and condensed into different petroleum products from kerosene to diesel. The heated oil is then funnelled into a cooling chamber. But this process does not always go to plan and when it fails, it causes explosions which have led to many fatal accidents and has polluted a region already blighted by oil spills in farmland, creeks, and lagoons.
Government officials estimate that Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer and exporter, loses an average of 200,000 barrels of oil per day, more than 10% of production, to illegal tapping or vandalising of pipelines. Over the last year, more than $3 billion of oil has been stolen, also impacting funding for other needs like education and health care. It has forced oil firms to regularly declare force majeure on oil and gas exports.