• Auditor-General blows the lid off the National Environment Management Authority’s failure to regulate oil firms, noting that the manner in which oil waste is currently disposed of may lead to an ecological disaster in the region. • All Uganda’s oil fields are located in the richly varied Albertine Graben, a good section of which is a protected area and habitat for wildlife, with five game parks, several lakes and forest reserves. • The audit, covering the period from 2006, when Uganda discovered oil till June 2013, says while drilling activity is ongoing, Nema has delayed coming up with adequate environmental regulations and guidelines, the risk of posing both environmental and economic harm.
By JULIUS BARIGABA| The EastAfrican
Even before Uganda gets the first barrel of oil out of the ground, it has emerged that the country’s environment watchdog is struggling to regulate and monitor the disposal of hazardous waste from the drilling activity in the Albertine region.
In a March 2014 Value For Money Audit, Uganda’s Auditor-General John Muwanga blows the lid off the National Environment Management Authority’s failure to regulate oil firms, noting that the manner in which oil waste is currently disposed of may lead to an ecological disaster in the region.
Mr Muwanga said degradation of land, contamination of water and change in the ecosystem will lead to death of fish.
All Uganda’s oil fields are located in the richly varied Albertine Graben, a good section of which is a protected area and habitat for wildlife, with five game parks, several lakes and forest reserves.
Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks, two of Uganda’s largest wildlife conservation areas — and the most visited — lie in this region. In 2013 alone, the two parks posted the biggest contribution TO tourism revenue, which totalled at $1.7 billion.
“To date, drilling waste generated in the Albertine Graben is not being treated but is stored in designated waste consolidated areas,” the audit says.
Industry best practice demands that drilling waste is treated and disposed of soon, following guidelines from the environment watchdog. Treatment should be done at the drilling site or transported to a designated treatment and disposal facility.
However, the drilling firms in the Albertine do neither, instead transporting their waste to waste consolidated areas, pending treatment by the oil companies.
Uganda Wildlife Authority and Nema also disagreed on burying of waste at drilling sites, with the former argued that in such a protected area, this would endanger burrowing animals, which would dig up the waste.
Fearing an environmental disaster, the government gave the environment watchdog an additional Ush3 billion ($1.16 million) in the financial year 2013/14 to conduct an environmental impact assessment to determine the danger of holding waste from oil and gas exploration and development in this protected area.
Executive director of Nema Tom Okurut, however, told The EastAfrican that the assessment did not show serious issues to warrant suspension of oil drilling.
“People need to look at the holistic picture. When the government decided to drill for oil from this region, that was a fundamental decision. If you expected that oil would come out of the Albertine area, and it would remain the same, that’s an illusion. There is no danger with the current method of disposal; the effect will be minimal,” he said.
The audit, covering the period from 2006, when Uganda discovered oil till June 2013, says while drilling activity is ongoing, Nema has delayed coming up with adequate environmental regulations and guidelines, the risk of posing both environmental and economic harm.
But Dr Okurut said: “All that is almost done now, it’s at an advanced stage — by December all the required regulations will be ready.
Yet, a waste consolidated area pit at Ngara has been left uncovered and some rainwater has collected in it, creating a new water body in the area, from which birds are freely drinking.
Meanwhile, the Bugungu waste consolidated area site is one of several where waste has been piled up above ground level and improperly covered. In case of rainwater washing some of the waste into the surroundings, this would result in potential contamination of soils.
“The current practices are likely to expose the Albertine Graben to potential environmental risks since such a large area of land in this sensitive ecosystem is cleared, dug up and compressed as a method of handling waste in the short run… it would be better if waste were treated and disposed of at once,” says the Auditor General, adding that continued consolidation creates a new risk centre that could result in environmental degradation if waste is not properly managed at waste consolidated areas.
In its defence, Nema argues that in February this year it licensed four companies to treat waste generated by Tullow Oil, Total E&P and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). These are EnviroServe Uganda Ltd, Strategic Logistics Ltd, McAllister Energy Resources Ltd and White Nile Consult.
However, none of these licensed firms had been contracted by any of the oil companies by the time of the audit in March. The EastAfrican has learnt that between March and now, only EnviroServe has been contracted to manage and treat Total’s oil waste.
In 2012, just after Uganda had given Tullow the go-ahead to farm down its stake and bring on board new partners in Total and CNOOC, reports show that at the time the companies were generating tonnes of solid and fluid waste.
The oil companies were increasingly frustrated that the country lacked a legal framework for disposal of drilling waste cuttings, and was taking too long to approve a disposal methodology.
At the time of the audit, for instance, Tullow and Total had generated a combined 39,625 tonnes of solid waste and 8,227 cubic metres of liquid waste. Waste figures for CNOOC were not availed to the Auditor-General.
“This is a huge logistical challenge as we have to transport, maintain and monitor all these sites,” a source in the industry said.