An explosion in Lagos, Nigeria, is shaking the city to its core. Almost 300 students were gathering for morning mass at Bethlehem Girl College. The next second, the school was gone. Miraculously no girl died in the blast, but the school’s principal, Sister Henriett Alokha, was one of the 23 people killed in the explosion. A newlywed couple, Chisom and Emmanuel Uyamadu, and their unborn child were among the victims of the blast. A pipeline managed by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigeria’s state-owned oil firm, had exploded. NNPC was quick to blame others. It is said the blast was because of a truck that hit gas cylinders staked near the pipeline. It’s a story that absolves the NNPC of responsibility and turns this blast into an unforeseeable accident. But is this story true?
Lagos Blast: The Forensics
The explosion hit Soba, a suburb of Lagos, at 08:56 am on 15th March 2020. In the minutes that followed, everyone with a mobile phone began filming. In one of the short videos shot in the moments before the explosion, using the metadata from her phone confirmed it was recorded at 8:51 am, very few minutes before the blast. The video shows that before anything had ignited, there was a major leak of vaporized liquid coming from behind a truck. The NNPC said that the truck collided with gas cylinders, stores at a gas processing plant near the pipeline.
However, satellite imagery is taken before the blast shows no gas processing plant at this site. Also, drone footage shot less than 48 hours before the explosion confirms that no gas cylinders were stored here. Specialties engineers all confirmed that a leak of this intensity could not be coming from a gas cylinder. Eye witness back up that expert testimony, none of them mentioned gas cylinders. However, four of them independently said the same thing.
“That’s when I saw the white smoke. The white smoke was emerging from the ground,” said a witness.
The vapor was coming out of the ground. So, if gas cylinders were not releasing the vapor, where was it from?
NNPC: Unprotected Pipelines.
It was already established that the leak was behind the truck. Drone footage shows that the source of this leak became the center of the blast crater. Satellite images taken back in 2009 reveal some information. There was a trench dug to contain the NNPC’s petroleum pipeline; this pipeline runs right through the source of the vapor leak. So, what would have caused the pipe to leak? Drone footage shows the truck burned out in the blast that stopped on the surfaced road directly above the pipeline.
At the same location, there is a dip in the land where rainwater has sometimes washed out some road’s surface. Days before the blast, it rained enough to soften the eroded soil on which the heavily laden truck was about to stop. This could have pressured the pipeline to breakpoint, realizing a cloud of vaporized flammable liquid that ignited. Dr. Ambisisi Ambituuni, a Nigerian engineer and academic, has been warning about the danger for years.
“We know the pipeline was designed in 1980. It was designed to last for only 25 years. Now the pipeline has been in existence for way over the lifespan of the pipeline,” said Dr. Ambituuni.
Who is really to blame for the Blast?
If you merge all these things: a pipeline that is a weekend in terms of its integrity, a cover of the pipeline that is eroded, and a truck driving on such an environment, clearly it is a recipe for disaster. The webpage of the Nigerian Pipelines and Storage Company, a subsidiary of the NNPC, states that the maintenance and integrity of petroleum pipelines are the sole responsibility of NPSC. Digging deeper, industry regulations require NNPC to protect the pipelines from washouts and the pipes being subjected to abnormal loads. When the findings were put to NNPC, they said NNPC pipelines are strictly compliant with safety and regulatory guidelines. They denied the pipelines were inadequately protected and said there was no leakage before the explosion. They also reaffirmed their explanation for the explosion’s cause: a truck hit a cylinder at an LPG shop.
Six months after the blast, while the pipeline has been turned back on, the Lagos school remains in ruins. This new evidence challenges the NNPC’s version of events and raises questions about who is really to blame for this tragic incident. The risks this pipeline carries into so many neighborhoods have not gone away. Underneath Nigeria’s school and homes, the oil keeps flowing.