Toxic Chemicals Pollute Rivers, Threaten Lives, Livelihoods In Oyo Communities (II)
…Investigations reveal chemical type, multinational company’s complicity, as farmers count losses
In the second of this two-part report, ALFRED OLUFEMI tracked hapless farmers that lost crops worth millions to environmental pollution caused by the spillage of toxic soap-making chemicals that affected several Oyo communities.
Those allegedly liable – a national and multinational company, as it is, have engaged in bulk-passing and refused to accept responsibility.
On one side of Kayode Ogundayomi’s expansive farmland lay heaps of rotten cucumbers harvested as waste, while on the other side were mounds of sprouting, perforated cabbage leaves that have lost their greenery.
The commercial vegetable farmer was livid with rage as he walked hands akimbo through his farm, inspecting the ruins that were once a stretch of flourishing vegetation. Intermittently, a hiss would escape his mouth.
All the spoils on Ogundayomi’s farm are evidence of the devastating impact of the environmental pollution caused by the soap-making chemical spillage that occurred weeks back.
The farmland, which spanned over an acre, abuts the spillway area of Ajeja dam. According to Google Earth, Ajeja dam is located 10 kilometres from Iroko, the source of the contamination.
The spillway is a natural drainage where water from the dam ferociously passes through and it is located nearly 10 kilometres from the point of the pollution (Iroko-Oyo highway).
Also in close proximity to the spillway are acres of land owned by a group of farmers, and like Ogundayomi, they also cultivate different types of edible vegetables in large quantities, which they supply to retailers across the state and beyond.
The farmers, PUNCH Investigations learnt, depend heavily on water from the two million cubic metres dam, to irrigate their farmland.
Ogundayomi told PUNCH Investigations that he projected making massive gains running into millions of naira after harvest, but that he lost everything to the environmental pollution in one fell swoop.
Recounting how it all started, he said one fateful day, he noticed massive bubble formation along the spillway and that with time, the wind blew them into the atmosphere and some settled, blanketing his vegetable farm.
Some videos and pictures, which he shared with our correspondent, showed when the portion of the farm where lettuce, cucumber, cabbage and carrot were planted, covered by the soap bubbles.
It was learnt that the toxic bubbles took several days to dissipate, by which time, irreversible damage had been done to the vegetable farm.
Quantifying his loss, Ogundayomi said, “I lost over N2m. Before the spillage, we (farmers) were about to harvest our cucumbers planted on three plots. We could not harvest anything because we couldn’t ascertain the effect of the chemical on the cucumbers. Everything was a heap of waste. The lettuces planted on two plots died before getting to maturity, same with the carrots and cabbage.”
He further revealed that they could not carry out any activity for weeks because the bubbles left the farmland in a toxic state.
Other farmers, while sharing their experiences, said they rely heavily on water from the dam for irrigation, lamenting that the state government and those responsible for the environmental degradation had left them to their fate.
They revealed that they continued to incur losses due to lack of water to irrigate the vegetables that were just sprouting.
“Vegetables need constant water to thrive. Those ready for harvest were what we lost. New ones are sprouting and they require water. We fear that water from the dam can adversely affect their growth and consequently, reduce yields. We want the state government to let us know the outcome of the test carried out to ascertain the water safety,” One of the farmers, Quadri Oyelami, said.
The middle-aged man, who is the technical officer of an Ibadan-based agricultural firm, said even before they got the government alert, they had stopped using the water for irrigation.
He said, “The surface of the water was dark. I am a trained environmentalist and I advise my colleagues to stop using it. This disaster has cost us millions of naira. My cucumber, tomatoes and sweet corn could not get the necessary amount of water required for them to produce the expected yield. In fact, it delayed the yield of my cucumber and other things.”
Water still foamy, smelly
During PUNCH Investigations’ visit to the spillway, which was exactly 25 days after the pollution occurred, our correspondent discovered that foamy bubbles still floated on the surface of the water.
Recall that residents did not know 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, was high.
The incident took place on August 31, but the Oyo State Government, through its Commissioner for Information and Tourism, Wasiu Olatunbosun, issued an “alert” to residents of Ijaiye, Ido, Olowo-Igbo, Iseyin and Ibarapa communities, on September 7, warning them against drinking water from their streams.
Despite the torrential rainfall experienced in the area, water in the spillway was still murky and a repugnant smell that was quite intolerable hung thickly in the air.
It was learnt that the nauseous smell was caused by the presence of dead fishes trapped inside the contaminated water.
Alarmingly, our correspondent learnt that left with no other source of water supply with which to water their vegetables, some of the farmers have damned any inherent consequence and defied the state government’s warning for farmers to steer clear of the water bodies.
“We are left with no other choice. It’s a risk we are taking,” one of the farmers supervising the labourers mouthed with indignation.
Police, govt accused of negligence
While detailing steps taken to identify those that should be held responsible for their losses, the vegetable farmers accused the state government and the Oyo State Police Command of abandoning them to their fate.
One of them, Solomon Adetoye, said when it was discovered that the bubble had taken over their farms, they immediately reported the development to the Rehab Police Station, which is the nearest.
He recounted, “Another farmer, Damilola Awe, and I went round to further investigate, after which we went to make a verbal complaint. An officer came to inspect the farms and after going round, he promised to get back to us, but we have yet to hear from him.”
Adetoye said concerted efforts made by the farmers’ cooperative society to locate the owner of the chemicals and the logistics company responsible for conveying the irons, proved abortive.
Corroborating Adetoye’s claim, the spokesperson for the cooperative society, Fatunmbi Adeyinka, said the body approached relevant agencies and ministries in the state for assistance, but got no favourable response.
He said, “Letters were written to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Water Corporation, requesting an analysis to be carried out on the soil. We also wrote to the Ministry of Environment for their assistance. We have not heard from them.”
Adeyinka lamented that they got a “discouraging and insensitive” reply when the association wrote to the Oyo State House of Assembly.
“We wrote to the Chairman of the House Committee on Water Resources and Chairman on Environment. We were told that since the incident had happened, there was nothing they could do about it,” he added.
SOS to FG
Feeling helpless and despondent, the farmers called on the Federal Government to ensure that those liable for the spillage be made to face the full wrath of the law.
“We want justice. We have appealed to the state for help. Our farmlands have been damaged and our crops ruined. We want them to find out the extent of damage done and compensate us. We are hardworking farmers and most of our agricultural investments are financed with loans,” Adeyinka lamented.
Undercover visit exposes NNPC’s link
PUNCH Investigations had previously, through official channels, asked the Oyo State Police Command for details of the logistics company or owner of the soap-making chemical, but got no response.
The police spokesperson, Adewale Osifeso, in a terse response via a text message to our correspondent, said the case had been charged to court, and refused to comment further or give details of the trial court.
However, in a bid to unravel the principal actors liable for the spillage, our correspondent went to the Rehab Police Station, where the case was first reported, pretending to be one of the affected farmers.
At the station, our correspondent was tongue-lashed by a cop for showing up nearly a month after the spill occurred.
Our correspondent explained that he travelled to Lagos and entrusted the farm in the hands of labourers, but that it turned out that they were incapable of managing the situation.
After what seemed like a never-ending heated debate, the policeman disclosed that the truck carrying the chemical was impounded and parked within the stations’ premises. He noted that the case had been transferred to the Moniya Police Division.
The cop pointed at a truck with the logo of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (now the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited), Nigeria’s biggest oil corporation, parked at the far end of the station.
Asked by our correspondent why an NNPC truck was used to convey the soap-making chemicals, the policeman refused to say anything and directed our correspondent to the Divisional Traffic Officer at Moniya Police Division
Up until July 2022, when it transformed into a limited liability company, NNPC was a government-owned corporation.
Though the new NNPC is expected to be fully independent, a significant part of its capital will still be provided by the Federal Government.
More startling revelations
From the Rehab Police Station, our correspondent drove to Moniya Police Division, which was about five minutes’ away.
At the gate, our correspondent regaled the officers with the same story of how his vegetable farm was among those destroyed by the soap-making chemicals and was immediately directed to the office of the DTO.
The senior police officer, a man in his 50s, was curled up on a couch, taking a nap, when our correspondent got to his office.
He quickly got up and sat behind his desk that had piles of folders occupying half of it.
After our correspondent ‘cum farmer,’ stated the reason for the visit, the DTO confirmed that the truck with the NNPC logo actually conveyed the soap-making chemicals.
Narrating how the incident happened, he said, “It was between a logistics company (whose truck was carrying iron) and the owners of the tanker carrying chemicals. The tanker collided with a truck bearing iron which fell, somersaulted and rolled into the bush.”
PUNCH Investigations would later find out that the name of the logistics company was Medlog, a firm that prides itself as a global logistics and supply operator, based on the information obtained from its website.
The DTO revealed that drivers of the two trucks were charged to court after they failed to reach an amicable settlement.
He claimed that the settlement was stalled by Medlog’s insistence on not paying for the chemical spillage.
“We thought they would resolve the issue, but since they could not, we had to charge them to court. The logistics company said it can’t shoulder the responsibility because it was illegal for NNPC tankers to convey chemicals,” the DTO said.
The senior police officer said that though the driver of the NNPC tanker, Idris Abdullahi, was still hospitalised, he was arraigned alongside the driver of the logistics company, Chucks Odili on September 14.
According to the charge sheet of the case, presently before Magistrate O.O Adisa of the Moniya Magistrates’ court, and which was obtained by our correspondent, both drivers were charged for traffic offences, including alleged obstruction, causing damage and causing the death of a truck boy.
While trying to remember other details relevant to the case, the DTO was joined by an Inspector, Abimbola Olasunboye, who along the line, recalled that some farmers from the spillway area had reported that extensive damages were done to their produce.
The plump, dark-skinned, officer recalled that a policeman was detailed to carry out an on-the-spot assessment on the affected farms.
“Some people came to report, but we were not at the station when they came. It was KB, (another officer) that followed them. I am not sure there was a written statement, but what I learnt was that KB took pictures and videos at the scene,” Olasunboye said.
Describing how dangerous the chemical was, the inspector said one of those that attempted to steal the spilt content, landed at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, with severe burns.
“The person who dipped his leg inside the chemical is in UCH as I speak. He thought it was something he could siphon. His legs are badly swollen,” he added.
Company’s representative appears in court
During the visit to the station, the traffic officers disclosed that the case was adjourned to October 13, for hearing.
On the said date, our correspondent travelled to Oyo State to monitor the proceedings and identify owners of the logistics and chemical companies.
However, when the case was mentioned, the two drivers, listed as defendants, were absent.
The prosecutor told the magistrate that while the hospitalised Idris Abdullahi (soap-making chemical driver) and Chucks Odilli (logistics driver) were absent, Abdullahi’s surety, Hayatul Usman, was present in court.
Usman, whom PUNCH Investigations learnt, also represented the owner of the chemical company at the police station when the incident occurred, presented a medical report as an excuse for the hospitalised driver’s absence.
Angered by Odili’s absence (logistics driver), the magistrate issued a bench warrant against him.
He also instructed the police to provide Odili, on the next adjournment date, November 10.
Interestingly, during the court processing that Thursday morning, a man wearing a yellow kaftan with a cap waltzed in. Our correspondent would later find out that he was the main representative of the chemical company from Kano State.
After the court session, our correspondent approached the rotund man simply referred to as ‘Alhaji.’
Still posing as one of the farmers, our correspondent asked him for the name of the company that owned the chemicals.
Evading the question, the man explained that he was only a transporter, adding that the chemical was worth over N45m.
“I am a transporter. I carry chemicals for the company. The company is not the issue. The logistics people caused the accident,” he defended.
Asked if there were plans to compensate the affected farmers, he referred our correspondent to Medlog Logistics, stressing that he was also a victim.
“The motor boy died,” he lamented, taking a deep breath. “My driver is in the hospital bleeding. The driver is coughing out blood and his arm has been dislocated. I have spent over N500, 000 to carry out different x-rays on him.”
He boasted that he had reported the case to the Oyo State governor, and said with finality, “The governor has sent a representative to the DPO.”
Probed further, he referred our correspondent to the police and walked briskly out of the court premises.
Days later, our correspondent was able to get the mobile telephone number of Usman (Abdullahi’s surety that was present at the court hearing), and contacted him.
After a lengthy discussion on compensation and the need to get the contact of the actual owner of the soap-making chemicals, an agitated Usman, revealed that he was a mechanic that usually carries out repairs on trucks for the company.
He noted that the truck was headed to Kano before the accident occurred. Usman, however, refused to disclose neither the company’s name nor the mobile of any of its employees.
Meanwhile, according to the charge sheet obtained by our correspondent the tanker with NNPC logo, which was used to ferry the chemicals, was listed as a property of Aspira Nigeria Limited, a subsidiary of Lee Group of Companies, a multinational company.
Checks by our correspondent showed that Aspira Nigeria Limited, incorporated in 2001, is one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of laundry care products in Nigeria, with its headquarters and manufacturing plant located in Kano.
On the company’s website, some of the products it manufactures include detergent, liquid soap and multi-purpose bar soap.
Chemical type, firm exposed
In the red alert issued by the state government, it was speculated that the chemical spilled was meant for soap production, but no specifics were given on what type it was, the danger it portends, or the company owner.
Meanwhile, Usman, while speaking with our correspondent, identified the chemical as linear alkyl benzene sulfonate acid, which is a surfactant.
According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia, surfactants, also called surface-active agents, are compounds that decrease the surface tension between two liquids, between a gas and a liquid, or between a liquid and a solid. It noted that surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, or dispersants.
Britannica, on its part, explained that in the dyeing of textiles, surfactants help the dye to penetrate the fabric evenly, adding that they are used to disperse aqueous suspensions of insoluble dyes and perfumes.
A World Health Organisation report noted that the chemical compound is the most widely used as foaming agent in soap production.
According to an Ethiopia-based chemical company, Merry Sanitation Chemicals Manufacturers, the chemical is also used in the textile industry as a washing agent, and in pesticide industries to improve the quality of spray.
Chemical dangerous to plants, soil — researchers
In a July 2000 report published by the European Medicine Agency, it was stated that the “toxicity of LAS has been seen on high dose levels.”
Likewise, in the second edition of Comprehensive Biotechnology, Volume six, a multi-authored book written by experts, the chemical compound may affect the soil negatively.
It stated, “LAS at low concentrations (0.02–1.0 mg l−1) in the aquatic environment have adverse effects on living organisms (fish and mollusks). Similarly, LAS at 40–60 mg kg−1 dry weight of soil may cause problems in the reproduction and growth of invertebrates and other organisms of the soil ecosystem.’’
Also, a study carried out by Chinese researchers from Wuhan University, showed that LAS can damage aquatic plants, known to play an important role in maintaining the health of the water environment and nature.
“Studies have shown that linear alkylbenzene sulfonate, a type of omnipresent pollutant, can cause toxic damage to aquatic plants,” the researchers concluded.
Urgent need for remediation— Experts
Experts who spoke with PUNCH Investigations called for urgent scientific research to be carried out on the affected farmlands and the spillway, to ascertain the level of pollution, recommending urgent remedial action.
An environmentalist and founder, Plogging Nigeria Club, Mayokun Iyaomolere, said that the relevant authorities needed to be intentional at this point to help remedy a situation that already appeared bad.
“The soil there needs some time, depending on how quickly action is taken, for remediation. There is a need to extract or clean the area of spillage. This is something that can be done in partnership with environmental institutes.
“There is a need for research and environmental institutes to carry out research and documentation of the spilt chemical and its effects, for appropriate solution and to proffer recommendations,” Iyaomolere said.
Also, a Lagos-based clinical microbiologist, Dr. Bamidele Mutiu, said while LAS is harmful to the environment, the government has to come clean on its quantity and other relevant details.
He said, “Sometimes, we have to be proactive. We have NGOs and people in the environment that can easily write to the government on the need to do something fast. Civil society organisations have lots of roles to play to ensure that the government implements policies concerning environmental protection.”
“Amend charges to facilitate compensation”
An Ibadan-based human rights lawyer, Peniela Akintujoye, was concerned that it would be difficult for the affected farmers to get compensated, especially if the charges brought against the drivers were not amended.
PUNCH Investigations learnt that the offences for which they were charged are punishable under the Road Traffic Regulation Laws of Oyo State.
Akintujoye argued that the charges do not show the gravity of the damage to the ecosystem, including the quantum loss of livelihoods and the possibility of more loss of lives.
The lawyer, however, suggested that the drivers and their companies be prosecuted based on the ‘Harmful Waste Special Criminal Provisions) Act.’
“The justice of this matter doesn’t only lie in charging the issue to court for criminal prosecution, but also assuaging the pains of the innocent people who have suffered on account of this violation.
He said, “The Harmful Waste (Special Criminal Provisions) Act certainly imposes a duty on the police to thoroughly investigate and prosecute carriers of harmful waste, who have by their negligence or carelessness, spilled the same to affect lives and livelihood of people. The police must live to their expectation in this case.’’
Akintujoye explained that under the law, the actions of the truck owners may be punishable by life imprisonment, noting that it also provides for compensation to those that might have suffered damage on account of the spillage of the harmful waste.
“The police, working hand in hand with the Oyo State Ministry of Environment, ought to conduct a true assessment of the extent of damage and specifically determine those affected, so as to compel the owners of the offending truck to pay adequate compensation to them,” he said.
When the lawyer representing Medlog logistics driver in court, Emmanuel Oluwayemi, was contacted to find out steps being taken to compensate the affected farmers, he claimed to have been contracted to handle only the case. He said all inquiries should be directed to the company.
On his part, Medlog’s Customer Care Manager, Oluwaseun Falope, promised to revert on the issue when contacted only to backtrack two days later.
“They said no one should talk about it”, he told PUNCH Investigations.
Meanwhile, the management of Aspira Nigeria Limited refused to clarify its ownership of the NNPC truck.
When Aspira’s Lagos office was contacted via one of the mobile numbers obtained on its website, an employee, identified through Truecaller as Lukman Kareem, referred our correspondent to its headquarters in Kano.
The male employee that answered the company’s Kano office mobile line, which was also listed on the website, told our correspondent to send a text message when he was told the reason for the call.
As of the time this report was filed, the company had yet to respond to text messages and two mails sent to its official email address.
Oyo govt silent on test outcome
Meanwhile, more than a month after the state government issued a red alert on the spillage, it refused to make public the result of tests carried out on water bodies in the area, or lift the ban placed on the use of water in the affected communities.
After several text messages were sent to the Commissioner for Environment, Abiodun Oni, to give insights into new developments on the environmental pollution, he sent a one-off text message that read, “We are unable to respond to you at the moment.”
NNPC evades questions
When the NNPC spokesperson, Garba Deen Muhammad, was contacted to know if the limited liability company offers logistics services to private companies, or if he was aware of the incident, he told our correspondent to send questions to his WhatsApp number, adding, “I will answer them if I can.”
However, no response has been received from him at the time this report was filed.