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Apapa tank farm complex: A disaster in the making

Nigeria as a country today faces a barrage of significant issues that if not addressed in the very near future may stall or even halt the economy and national GDP completely.

Porous security, weakened bridges and metropolitan infrastructure, parochial power generation, political corruption, etc. But all of these issues pale in comparison to the overwhelming potential disaster posed today by the Apapa Tank Farm Complex. This is an environment responsible for over eighty percent of the country’s national revenue; an area which basically shoulders the well being and economic security of the country.

Yes, Nigeria is one of the foremost countries in crude oil supply, but it is also one of the biggest importers of the products extracted from crude oil: petrol, kerosene, diesel, etc. These are the life blood of her industries, households and government institutions. Nigeria depends on the continued and consistent availability of these petroleum products which are mainly imported from foreign refineries.

These products, when imported, are stored in facilities popularly called Tank Farms. These facilities which are normally located around marine environments to aid transfer and storage are highly sensitive to accidents and mishaps because of the volatile nature of the products stored therein and the constant human traffic in the loading and unloading process. The Nigerian economy today is essentially the Apapa Tank Farm Complex because no other stratum of the economy shoulders so much socio-economic responsibility.

Tank Farms located in most industrialized countries, like that of Cushing, Oklahoma, and Houston Texas, USA are usually far from civilian habitation and in strictly industrial areas. They undergo the most stringent inspection and audit systems and are constantly watched over by regulatory agencies and 3rd party inspection companies. They must be tested for corrosion, leaks and metal loss almost on a monthly basis and undergo in-service Inspections and out of service/Turn Around maintenance at periods determined by domestic jurisdictional needs. The owners of such facilities are required to retain and maintain up to date records of not only Inspections and maintenance activities, but also construction and fabrication records and documentation.

These extra measures are necessary because Tank Farms are pseudo time bombs. They are constantly laden with highly explosive substances and are subject to a high probability and consequence of failure. Because they are usually linked by connecting pipelines and/or distribution channels, and are located within the same vicinity, they suffer a domino effect when accidents occur, i.e. when one tank leaks and explodes; other tanks around it usually suffer the same fate.

These so called developed countries still suffer mishaps and extensive damage including loss of lives from Tank Farm explosions and fires. For example, the Buncefield accident in England on 11th December 2005 started from one tank and destroyed about 30 tanks in a two day inferno. The explosions were heard 200 kilometers away and the blast destroyed buildings within an 8 kilometer radius. The post accident investigation cited a leak which created a vapor cloud that travelled until it found an ignition point, according to news sources.

It took 25 top notch Fire Engines, 20 support vehicles and over 180 Firefighters over 3 days to extinguish the blaze. And what about the San Juanico disaster on 19th of November 1984, rated as one of the deadliest industrial disasters in world history?

This unholy blaze destroyed the entire facility and devastated the entire town, killing over 600 people, with an excess of 7000 people suffering severe burns. This fire which was caused by an undetected leak from one of the tanks, destroyed the entire 60 tanks, and was said to have been caused by an ineffective gas detection system.

These are just a few cases, but it can be clearly observed that having these huge storage facilities filled with tons of explosive material is ‘no joke’ indeed. One wrong move and the entire City or State may be lost.

These issues and many others concerning Tank Farms could have been avoided if the proper inspection processes where followed and leak detection equipment functional. Early detection, inspection and maintenance regardless of the nominal cost are key to accident prevention. Even if the cost to maintain a tank per three years is a hundred thousand dollars, it is nothing compared to one faulty tank blowing up half the city and destroying marine life and the entire ecosystem for hundreds of years. The cost of Inspections and maintenance no matter how high is nothing compared to the price of losing the entire facility, including lives and property; and in the case of Nigeria, the entire economy.

Seeing the prevailing situation in Apapa today, the question is not IF, but WHEN the disaster happens. Nigeria would be the worst industrial disaster in recorded history. It would wipe out the entire area in a matter of hours. Like the Buncefield case described above, a blast circumference of about 8 kilometers would be a conservative estimate for Apapa Tank Farm. Furthermore, Apapa is a heavily populated area, with a significant mix of business and residential districts. This part of Lagos which also has bridges is always suffering from traffic jams and bumper to bumper gridlock traffic.

Heavy tankers used for fuel distribution make up a major portion of the vehicles plying the road, adding to the inferno risk. In the case of a blast on any given day, all traffic would be instantly wiped out from the heat wave alone. The multiple tankers within the traffic jam and the petrol driven cars would spread the blaze further than expected. The poor fire fighting system would virtually be impotent in combating the blaze and most likely the inferno would be left to die out on its own. Given the nature of the petroleum products involved, the entire State stands the risk of going up in flames due to ‘daisy-chain’ re-ignition and the sheer demographic density of Lagos state.

Apart from the explosive destruction alone and the grand loss of lives and property, the economic impact and negative multiplier effect would be unimaginable. The sudden regression of national revenue, business activities and GDP would render the country instantly crippled and helpless for years if not decades. All commerce, power generation and provision (given that PHCN is a joke today), health care and life generally would become a nightmare if the Apapa Complex goes up in flames. The country may not be able to contain such a disaster.

All the factors are present today to initiate such an unexpected inferno: The Complex is packed with multiple Tank Farms owned by various private sector stakeholders that undergo minimal regulation. Inspections and leak detection systems are almost nonexistent, as there is no 3rd party supervision. The peripheral Inspections actually done are determined by the companies that own the facilities, which is akin to two opposing teams refereeing their own game.

The regulatory agency in this case the Department of Petroleum resources (DPR) and the Lagos State government have not gone far enough in enforcing the type of inspection and maintenance services that would ensure zero leaks and a safe working environment and the location is so densely populated that a single tank explosion would take the life of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. In short, the entire Complex is a sitting duck due to the ‘Nigerian effect’ of poor maintenance and moral bankruptcy.

The time has come for the DPR, the Lagos state government and the entire citizenry of the country to take the Apapa Tank Farm Complex seriously. Previous suggestions and attempts have been made by the government to relocate the entire Complex to the Lekki free trade zone and similar areas. This is not a feasible short term option and even if it were possible, the same culture would prevail in the new environment: tantamount to shifting the problem rather than solving it. It is time the government took the regulations ‘bull by the horn’. Given the recent mishaps in Apapa, luck may be running out on the country.

The solution from my experience and perspective is simple. The government must subject the entire Complex to a stringent third party Inspections entity. This new dispensation must stipulate in clear terms a code of conduct akin to the API 653 program, and commence extensive Inspections with conventional and automated non destructive techniques immediately. These jurisdictional directives should mandate the Tank Farm owner to compulsory In-Service and Out of Service (Turn Around) Inspections in order to analyze every aspect of the tank and detect potential defects before they result in system flaws and eventual catastrophe.

The in-service non destructive techniques must employ an ‘In-House’ Inspections crew, resident in a safe area within the Complex to monitor the various Leak Detection and Security Sensors and provide on the ground repair recommendations and supervision, according to jurisdictional code. All activities including product loading and unloading, regardless of how simple or complex must be governed by 3rd party supervision and documented.

Regarding the problem of congestion, the defective tanks could be shut down for repair, and loaner tanks constructed by the DPR within the Lekki free trade zone to re-route the product, while the repair process is carried out. This will sustain the flow of revenue for the private sector; maintain supply levels, while making money for the DPR that owns these loaner tanks. These loaner tanks will eventually constitute the new Tank Farm Complex, but will be done in such a way that the process is gradual, avoiding the economic shock that sudden relocation may entail.

This is the blue print in a nutshell. If the government can adopt these programs and suggestions in a timely and effective manner, maybe the impending doom and disaster looming over the Apapa Tank Farm Complex can be avoided. It should be noted that the government and the country in general may get away with cutting corners in other aspects of the economy with little consequence, but if this Tank Farm philosophy is not addressed and reformed, the Nigerian economy will suffer a blow that it may not recover form in a quarter of a century. Prevention is always better than cure.

Ikenna Ifedobi is a Consultant of the American Petroleum Institute (API) and an Economist based in Houston Texas.


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