Weeks after PUNCH Investigations report, wastewater samples collected from the dysfunctional government-owned sewage plant located inside the Abesan Low-Cost Housing Estate in Lagos, showed high concentration of toxins dangerous to humans and ecosystem, ALFRED OLUFEMI reports.
In December 2022, complaints from residents of Abesan Low-Cost Housing Estate in Lagos made PUNCH Investigations to embark on weeks of fact-finding that led to mindboggling discoveries about unwholesome human activities that were inimical to the wellbeing of residents.
The harmful acts, which residents claimed was responsible for decades of environmental degradation witnessed within the densely populated estate, was being perpetrated by operators of a state-owned dysfunctional sewage plant accused of making easy lucre at the detriment of residents’ health.
Results from laboratory tests carried out on samples of wastewater collected from various areas within the estate showed that the unwholesome practices carried out within and around the sewage plant was capable of predisposing residents to various forms of cancer, vital organ damage, among other debilitating health challenges.
PUNCH Investigations had on January 16, 2023, reported that the sewage plant fell short of national and global standards meant to guide the operation of such a facility.
The report, titled, ‘Govt-owned plant dishes out dangerous chemicals, threatens residents’ health’, chronicled the pathetic plight of the community as it struggled under the chokehold of the sewage plant.
Ordinarily, the Abesan sewage plant, which was constructed in the 90s, was designed to treat wastewater from different sewer lines within the estate up to the ‘secondary level’.
The treatment process involved proper disinfection of wastewater before being discharged into the environment (waterways).
However, findings showed that for nearly a decade, most of the machines installed for the treatment had broken down, thus leaving the community to battle with the resultant pollution of groundwater and nauseous smell constantly released into the air.
For instance, it was discovered that the untreated wastewater is mostly discharged in its raw state into the Abesan River, which runs directly behind the facility.
Ironically, this particular river has tributaries linked to several communities within Lagos and Ogun states.
According to Google map, a mapping tool, Abesan River travels over 10 kilometres through Ayobo, a densely populated community in Lagos, to Sango Ota, Ogun State, where it joins bigger water bodies.
A 2011 research published by the Journal of Water Resource and Protection, noted that water from the three metres deep Abesan River is used for washing, bathing, cooking, and spiritual activities in some of these communities.
However, until PUNCH Investigations took samples of the wastewater for tests, residents had no idea or could not ascertain whether it poses any danger to their health.
A promise never kept
Still in the report, PUNCH Investigations detailed how the state government repeatedly raised the hopes of residents by pledging to rehabilitate sewage treatment plants across the state, but reneged on its promises.
Helpless residents, community heads and youths, using several mediums, cried out for intervention, yet nothing was done to ameliorate their suffering.
Speaking on this, a youth leader in Abesan, Ehis Ero, told our correspondent that it was high time the state government took decisive action as the facility was in a comatose state.
A distraught Ero recalled that residents have had several engagements with government representatives and noted that they (residents) were being pushed to the wall.
In a voice laced with anger, he blurted, “We have been to the plant several times to discuss with those in charge. How can they go all over Lagos State, pick up wastewater and bring it here to discharge? Each truck can go on four trips and you have like 50 trucks there. They must come up with a solution.”
Continuing, he said, “What happened to the machine meant to be used there? They said it got spoilt. That place was contracted to somebody. It is like an abandoned sewage plant. When it is not well managed, the government is supposed to intervene.”
When confronted with PUNCH Investigations findings about the facility, the General Manager in charge of the Lagos State Wastewater Management Office, Adebola Matanmi, blamed the decay of the sewage system and treatment plant on increasing population inside the estate.
He claimed that they usually carried out primary treatment on the wastewater before it was discharged.
Our correspondent went on to draw Matanmi’s attention to the fact that the wastewater was still toxic after going through just primary treatment.
He replied, “I’m not telling you it’s not (toxic) but it is limited. It won’t be as toxic as it should be if it were raw.”
However, his claim seemed to have been contradicted by the laboratory result which showed that he might have downplayed the implication of what was going on at the sewage plant.
Insights from laboratory tests
During the course of this investigation, our correspondent discreetly collected wastewater samples from the point where it was being discharged into the Abesan River.
The samples were sent to UNILAG Consult Laboratory, where a series of tests were carried out.
For four weeks, the samples were subjected to a series of tests that include analysis for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, heavy metals and microbiology characteristics.
The results, which were handed over to our correspondent in a tightly sealed envelope, would later reveal that the wastewater contained high levels of heavy metals such as iron, lead, manganese and nickel.
It was highlighted that the amount of metals indicated exceeded the limits permissible by the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, a federal agency, established to ensure a cleaner and healthier environment for Nigerians.
For instance, according to the results, the NESREA limit for iron in wastewater is 2.0 milligrams per litre (mg/L), but the amount found in the samples tested was 3.0 mg/L, which was much higher than the NESREA limit.
Similarly, the amount of lead found in the samples was over 500 per cent higher than the NESREA limits.
The report attached to the results concluded, “The wastewater does not satisfy the NESREA limits. The level of BOD, COD, chloride, ammonia, sulphide, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, total bacteria counts, and E. coli do not conform with the statutory limits. Therefore, the wastewater should be treated before discharging to the environment.”
Hell for aqua life
When our correspondent sought the opinions of experts on the likely impact of the results on humans and the ecosystem, and to have them explain some aspects that seemed technical, they (experts) warned that the wastewater would have grave consequences on aquatic life.
A clinical microbiologist, Dr. Mutiu Bamidele, explained that the results were based on parameters that were allowed before wastewater can be discharged into the environment.
Bamidele said from his assessment, the samples contained high levels of decaying plant matter, human waste and industrial effluent, adding that the microbiological characteristics of the samples makes the Abesan River unsafe for fish and other aquatic lives.
“BOD is the Biological Oxygen Demand and is expected to be below. Low level means organisms are not high. Chemical Oxygen Demand is a measure of the oxygen equivalent to the organic matter in a water sample that is susceptible to oxidation by a strong chemical oxidant.
“Higher COD levels mean there is greater amount of oxidizable organic material in the sample, which will then reduce dissolved oxygen (DO) levels.
“A reduction in DO can lead to anaerobic conditions, which is deleterious to higher aquatic life forms,” he added.
Cancer risks and more for humans
A professor of public health, Tanimola Makanjuola, was worried that if the chemicals found in the tests found their way to water bodies where people drink from, it might cause different types of cancer.
He said, “Evidence has shown that these chemicals increase the risk of leukaemia (blood cancer), kidney, liver, brain, pancreas, and prostate cancers. Heavy metals like nickel, among others, are also added to fuel, and repeated exposure to them can be hazardous to the nervous system.”
Another medical expert, Dr. Olusina Ajidaun, said the presence of iron and lead can damage internal organs such as the brain, kidney and heart.
“The iron level is very high. We know that if Drinking water has a lot of iron, it can lead to high toxicity, which can damage the brain, kidney, heart, pancreas and bone.”
Continuing, he warned, “It can also make a person infertile. The lead is high. It is not common except where people live in industrial areas. Lead can as well damage the brain and affect the intestine.”
Fear of massive poisoning
More alarming was the revelation from Dr. Ajidaun that those who consume aquatic animals such as fish and crabs from water bodies where the contaminated wastewater is discharged stand the risk of suffering from the ailments outlined.
“It is going to affect the consumer. I want you to read up on Minamata,” he advised.
The medical expert said the state government needed to act fast to prevent the outbreak of the disease, which broke out in Japan.
Minamata disease, according to the Japan’s Ministry of Environment, is a neurological disease caused by severe mercury poisoning which damages the central nervous system.
The disease is a large-scale mercury poisoning that results from methylmercury contamination, usually in seafood.
According to Medical News Today, a website dedicated to health reporting, the prominent case of Minamata happened when a Japanese factory released waste that included methylmercury in Minamata Bay.
NESREA, LASEPA launch probe
When contacted about the unwholesome practice discovered at the Abesan sewage plant and the outcome of the laboratory tests, the spokesperson for the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, Amaka Ejiofor, requested that an email should be sent.
A few days after the mail was sent alongside a copy of the laboratory results, Ejiofor gave an assurance that the organisation would investigate the matter.
“We are on it. You know you have to give us time to investigate,” she stated in a terse WhatsApp message.
The Public Affairs Officer of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, Bola Ajao, said the agency was not aware of the danger posed by the facility as well as the illicit activities of the operators.
She requested details of the area and promised to inform the zonal office close to Abesan Estate to investigate further.
A few days later, Ajao called to inform our correspondent that the zonal officer had been scheduled to attend a meeting with the LSWMO officials, after which they would pay a visit to the plant.
In a message sent the next day, the LASEPA spokesperson informed our correspondent of the agency’s intention to visit the plant on Monday, February 13.
But barely 24 hours after, Ajao sent our correspondent a Whatsapp message noting that the planned visit had been cancelled and promised to communicate the new date.
“The trip has been cancelled for Monday,” the Whatsapp message read.
Sanwo-olu approves facility renovation
Meanwhile, the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, has approved the renovation of the Abesan sewage plant and wastewater structures on the estate.
This was disclosed during a stakeholders’ meeting on February 15 at the estate secretariat.
The meeting, PUNCH Investigations gathered, was attended by the General Manager of the Lagos State Wastewater Management Office, Adebola Matanmi, some government officials and representatives of the estate’s resident association.
A statement read after the meeting by the Head of Publicity, LSWMO Kehinde Akerele, indicated that the state government was set to commence rehabilitation of the wastewater infrastructure in phases.
“Engr. Matanmi informed the (estate) residents’ leadership that Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has approved the rehabilitation of the wastewater infrastructures on the estate. He informed the residents that work will be carried out in phases,” the statement read.
PUNCH Investigations gathered that the first phase of the renovation would be the rehabilitation of the sewer networks, while the second would involve the expansion of the facility later in the year.
“Engr. Matanmi thereby sought the support of the residents towards the commencement of the first phase, which will commence in five days’ time. He urges the estate management to inform owners of the structures illegally constructed on the sewer networks, especially those on the sectors where work will be carried out,” it further read.
Confirming the outcome of the meeting and renovation plans, the spokesperson for the Abesan Estate Residents Association, Olufemi Godman, said the government promised to create a 7-metre deep manhole that would take care of the blockage being experienced in the estate.
“We appreciate PUNCH Newspapers for the story. We also appreciate Hon. Abiru, the chairman of the committee on the environment at the House of Assembly that led his team to the estate,” he said.
“Abesan plant operators still polluting environment”
Although the state government made known its intention to renovate the wastewater structures, PUNCH Investigation gathered that the Abesan plant operators have not stopped discharging untreated wastewater into the environment.
Our correspondent gathered from residents that after PUNCH Investigations report went viral, operators of the plant, as well as sewage tanker drivers, refused to show up for some days.
This was confirmed by the community head, Baale Buari Adeleye.
He said, “All the tankers were taken away for a few days. They accused us of reporting them to journalists. But they are now back and going about their activities as usual.”
Corroborating Adeleye, the youth leader, Ehis Ero, said the operators resumed days later and had continued to pollute the air and water bodies.
He said, “Yesterday, people from nearby schools and the sewage operators almost fought because the smell was horrible.”
Ero, however, warned that if the state government failed to intervene, there might be a breakdown of law and order.
“The ministry is not doing anything and this issue might degenerate into something else,” he said.