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The Ondo toxic-waste deaths

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The death of three timber-men from alleged toxic waste pollution in Omotosho Forest Reserve in Okitipupa Local Government Area of Ondo State has again drawn public attention to the issue of poor environmental protection in the country.

Nigerians are daily exposed to unbridled pollution from myriad of sources. There are no records of casualties and other deleterious impacts on public health. The death of the three men in Ondo serves as a wake-up call on government to rise to the challenge, curb pollution and protect public health.

There would have been no casualties of this nature if there was an environmental quality monitoring of industrial waste disposal methods to detect toxicity. Even where standards have been set by legislation, lack of enforcement gives polluters the leeway to flagrantly flout the laws and go scot-free.

According to reports, the casualties, Monday Akinmusire (35), Samuel Louis (45) and Adebowale Ododolewa (19), who were wood felling operators died in the course of duty on September 2 at Omotosho Okefara forest. The trio had gone to the forest reserve to fell trees and cut them to size for sale as usual, but met their untimely death.

While Louis was a contractor and wood merchant, Akinmusire was an operator of the saw machine used in felling and cutting trees to size. The third victim, a teenager, Ododolewa, who was writing the ongoing West African Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE), was a helper.

According to family sources, the victims went to the forest to fell trees as usual but when they didn’t return, the community raised a search team to look for them in the forest. Sequel to a fruitless search, they went back to the community to report to the community leader, the Olufara of Akinfosile, Oba Olamide Ayodele, who instituted a new search team made up of the Vigilante Corps and the Amotekun Corps who went back into the forest after informing the Divisional Police Officer.

The search party stumbled on their bodies covered with black substance. They saw a big pit surrounded by heap of sand believed to have been excavated from the pit.

“We saw that a part of the sand had been washed off by the toxic waste discovered to have been discharged into the pit. The toxic waste overflowed the pit and flowed down the slope where the trio were working and submerged them. The bodies of the victims were seen on the flowing track of the toxic waste which killed them instantly as there were no sign that they attempted to struggle with death,” said a member of the search team.

It is curious as facts revealed that the boys were killed by toxic waste generated by a Chinese company, which is into cassava to ethanol processing. This is a huge challenge to the Ondo State government on environmental monitoring and control. After all, the Ondo State government leased the forest to the Chinese company to clear and replant trees. Now there is a reason to look into what the Chinese investors are doing to the environment and implications on the people.

For instance, the contract allows saw-millers and plank dealers to fell the existing trees in the forest but they pay tax to government officials monitoring their activities. This is not a transparent business in the context of regulation.

Obviously, those monitoring are bound to focus more on revenue generation and so they may care less about the deleterious impacts of the activities on public health, ecosystem and biodiversity.

The negligence is confirmed by the lackadaisical manner the state Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Teo-Leo Ikoro, described the tragedy as an accident from toxic waste that overflowed where it was discharged. “There is a company producing ethanol in the area and it was an accident as a result of waste from the company. The bodies of the victims of the accident have been deposited in a morgue. But the company and the families of the victims are already talking and making arrangement on the matter. It was an accident,” the police officer noted so carelessly. This is not the kind of reaction the nation expects from an officer of the law in 21st century.  To dismiss such a tragic incident as a mere accident, even when the nature of the pollutant has not been established raises eyebrows. That is not acceptable. Why can’t there be thorough investigations into the suspicious and deadly activities of the Chinese firms?

The Chinese company that discharged the toxic effluents should be held to account along with the government agencies that allowed unbridled pollution. The polluter-pays principle should apply. This is not a matter for the company and the bereaved families to discuss so meretriciously. Elsewhere, following the deaths, the relevant government agencies should have rushed to the scene to assess the extent of the pollution. How harmful is the toxic substance to man, animals and plants? What should be done to prevent fatalities in future?

It is regrettable that Nigeria is a dumping ground for all manner of used industrial goods from around the world. There are no checks. Those who should guard against dumping are compromised. In 1988, for instance, Italian businessmen illegally dumped over 2000 drums, sacks and containers containing hazardous wastes in a small fishing village of Koko, near Sapele in Delta State. The wastes were claimed by the dealer to be fertilizers that would help poor farmers but instead it turned into a nightmare. No lesson learned by the authorities till the present. It is high time government rose to the challenge of toxic pollution in all ramifications whether it is by dumping or discharge of harmful effluents from industrial point sources operated by unscrupulous foreigners working artfully with perverted government officials.

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