By Gerald Tenywa and Ibrahim Ogaram
WHEN officials of an oil company knocked at the door of Eougals Olwoch, a farmer in Kibaapabit East, Purongo sub-county in Amuru district, they proposed to bury some waste in his backyard and reward him handsomely.
The unsuspecting farmer went away smiling with sh700,000 after accepting the deal.
The waste was buried without consulting the then district environment officer, Doreen Ajok Lanyero, or Atube Omach, the Amuru LC5 chairperson. Even the neighbouring community that stands to lose its drinking water to pollution was not consulted.
The incident raised eyebrows since oil waste in Uganda has been found to contain heavy metals that are above internationally acceptable levels. Two years later, the waste is still buried under the farmerâ€™s land.
â€œHeritage Oil was supposed to excavate all the waste on the farmerâ€™s land, but this did not happen and Heritage went away,â€ Waiswa Ayazika, the director of environment monitoring at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), told New Vision.
â€œEverything is awaiting the transition from Heritage to Tullow. When this is over, we will take up the matter with Tullow,â€ he added.
According to a report by the National Agricultural Research Organisation, samples of soil and plants growing on the waste contained excessive levels of pollutants like mercury.
Six months ago, Purongo sub-county council resolved that the waste should be removed immediately.
â€œWe have also stopped the local community from drinking water from a bore-hole near the ground holding the waste,â€ Simon Okony, the Purongo LC3 chairperson, said.
He said the community has now shifted to another bore-hole located about 300 meters away because it is on a raised ground. The one that was closed was in a low lying area and located within 200 meters from the waste.
NEMA director Dr. Aryamanya Mugisha says the waste disposed of in the farmerâ€™s backyard has helped the regulatory agencies â€” NEMA, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Petroleum Exploration and Production Department and oil companies â€” â€œdiscuss appropriateâ€ ways of disposing of oil waste.
Mugisha was last week speaking to journalists during an oil tour organised by NEMA and UWA. It covered operational areas of Tullow in Hoima, Buliisa, Nwoya and Neptuneâ€™s areas of Arua.
Oil companies ordered to keep hazardous waste
Tullowâ€™s temporary waste collection centre at Kisinja is where most of the waste from different oil wells is stored. Several large plastic tanks of up 200,000 liters are reserved for liquid waste, while the solid waste is stacked in sacks. This, according to Mugisha, is a temporary site for waste collected from different oil wells in Hoima, Buliisa and Nwoya. This will later shift to a central waste treatment plant.
â€œThe location will be near the refinery. We want to move the waste outside peopleâ€™s residences. We know what is in the waste,â€ said Mugisha.
Other waste collection centres will be constructed around Amuru to take care of waste from West Nile and another in Kanungu.
Private companies will manage the central waste treatment facility and another company will be in charge of transportation. The cost will be met by the oil companies because according to the pay polluter principle, the waste generator is responsible for the waste.
The central waste treatment facility will also have a laboratory for testing the different chemicals and suitability for making materials that cannot be washed away into water bodies or agricultural land.
How oil waste is created
During drilling, a long pipe bores through the ground, creating space as it cuts through the different kinds of rocks. In the process, pieces of rocks also referred to as mud cuttings are produced. Such rocks contain different minerals, which could be toxic. In addition to this, lubricating materials used in drilling contain lead and cadmium. These two are heavy metals that cause cancer and compromise the intelligence of particularly children.
A team of oil drillers in Kigogole oil site in Bullisa district said they are committed to reducing waste by 70% by re-using the materials they use for lubricating. This was confirmed by Mugisha who said, â€œthe technology is changing and conscious companies are reducing the amount of waste by re-using it.â€
Construction of mud pits
Initially, the companies were ordered to dig what Mugisha refers to as mud pits or concrete pits. They are constructed with poly liners (thick plastic materials) followed by a layer of concrete.
â€œWe are making sure no waste is put away,â€ Mugisha said in Hoima during the trip to the oil wells recently.
Oil waste useful
As much as oil waste is toxic, Mugisha said the team sent to the US by the Government discovered that it produces by products such as construction materials for roads, airfields, fertilizers, and bricks. But Ugandaâ€™s oil waste will not be used for making fertilisers and bricks.
â€œWe have discouraged the use of waste in making bricks,â€ Mugisha said adding that toxic waste can easily be washed into the environment.
He says they would consider using waste for paving roads outside the reserved areas and far away from water bodies.
Specialised team to monitor operations of oil companies
A field team from NEMA and UWA has been instituted to monitor oil operations on a daily basis. This will later evolve into units with more staff as oil development intensifies and gives way to production.
To build knowledge and exposure, representatives from the team were sent by Government to attend a training in the US about four months ago.
Wild animals searching for water break through the fences enclosing the oil wells. When it rains, water collects in the mud pits, creating â€œwatering holesâ€ for the animals. At buffalo East five well in Murchison Falls National Park, the team found two water bucks trapped inside the enclosure of the oil well. Sources said elephants also frequently visit this mud pit.
Given that 33 out of the 44 licensed oil wells are in protected areas, this raises concern. â€œThere isnâ€™t regular monitoring here,â€ said Mugisha.
â€œThis (trapped waterbuck) is an eye opener. We need to make the fence strong enough not to allow animals to enter and this is humanly possible.â€
A recent review under NEMA has recommended that the team of field oil monitors should be expanded to cover the extensive oil region. They will following in the footsteps of UWA, which has officers in its protected areas following oil matters.
As Mugishaâ€™s team pushes companies to keep the waste in the mud pits, they should think twice about the waste on the farmerâ€™s land in Amuru. This waste should be removed and when the dispute over Tullowâ€™s take over of Heritageâ€™s assets and liabilities, NEMA should pass over the bill to Tullow.
Everyday that passes, waste from Olwochâ€™s land could be draining into the water-table used by over 300 people, most of them children.