YENAGAO, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 100 people were killed overnight in an explosion at an illegal oil refinery at the border of Nigerian rivers and the state of Imo, a local government spokesman and an environmental group said on Saturday.
“The outbreak of the fire occurred at an illegal bunker storage site and affected more than 100 people who burned beyond recognition,” said State Oil Commissioner Goodluck Opiah.
The site for the bunkers was in the Ohaji-Egbema local government area in Imo State in the Abaezi Forest, which borders the two states.
Unemployment and poverty in the oil-producing Niger delta have made illegal oil refining an attractive business, but with deadly consequences. Crude oil is extracted from a network of pipelines owned by large oil companies and refined into products in makeshift tanks.
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The dangerous process has led to a number of fatal accidents and polluted a region already affected by oil spills on agricultural land, streams and lagoons.
The Center for Advocacy for Youth and the Environment said the blast burned several vehicles queuing up to buy illegal fuel.
The location of the border is a reaction to the recent crackdown on illegal refining by the governor of the state of Rivers in an effort to reduce growing air pollution.
“The governor of Rivers State has recently worked to end illegal refining in Rivers, so he has to move to the outskirts and neighboring states. There have been several attacks in the last month or two and some security agents have been rescued,” Ledum Mitee, former Movement president for the survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP), he said.
At least 25 people, including some children, were killed in an explosion and fire at another illegal refinery in Rivers state in October.
In February, local authorities announced they had begun repression to try to stop the refining of stolen oil, but to no apparent success.
Government officials estimate that Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer and exporter, is losing an average of 200,000 barrels of oil a day – more than 10% of production – due to those interfering with pipelines or vandalizing.
This has forced oil companies to regularly declare force majeure in oil and gas exports.
(Additional reporting by Julie Payne in Lagos, writing by Julia Payne and MacDonald Dzirutwe, editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Ros Russell)
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