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Oil waste managers face lean days, criticism over standards

Slow progress towards production of Uganda’s oil has given a nascent waste management industry the chance to catch up—but the lack of a steady supply of new wastes is making for uncertain and uneven development.

By Nicholas Young

To the puzzlement of local observers, thousands of tonnes of drilling wastes are being moved from a Tullow Oil storage area to a treatment plant that is not yet operational, while a brand new waste management facility stands relatively idle a few kilometres away in Hoima district.

The plant under construction is a joint venture between a Ugandan company, White Nile Consults, and TEDA Landoo Oilfield Services, based in Tianjin, China.  White Nile Consults is one of four waste management companies licenced by NEMA (the National Environment Management Authority).  It won a contract from Tullow to handle wastes from the south of the oil exploration area that Tullow operates.  This includes ‘legacy’ waste from exploration wells drilled years ago, and since stored in a ‘consolidated waste area.’

The White Nile Treatment Plant under construction. (Photo: Nick Young)

The White Nile Treatment Plant under construction. (Photo: Nick Young)

Oil in Uganda visited the White Nile site in late November.  It lies in sparsely inhabited bush south of the new Hoima-Kaiso highway, several kilometres from Hohwa village in Buseruka sub-county.

It is still a building site, with makeshift offices in shipping containers while washrooms and an accommodation block are under construction.  A water tanker stands by, because the site does not yet have a water supply. The foundations of a warehouse area have been laid.  This, workers on the site tell us, will house specialised waste treatment machinery.

Construction work started in May 2015, according to White Nile staff on the site, and oil wastes started to arrive in September.  They say they are receiving around 16 trucks a day, each carrying ten tonnes of solid waste.  This is piled in a line stretching one hundred metres downhill inside the fenced, 150 acre site, and covered in black plastic.

Hoima District Environment Officer, Joseline Nyangoma, is worried about the way the waste is being stored while it waits for treatment.  “For me, I don´t think it is up to standard,” she says, noting that there is no provision for collecting contaminated water that may leach from the drill cuttings.  She says conditions are better in the Tullow storage area, which she inspected, and that it is not clear what criteria NEMA uses when it monitors contractors.  “NEMA should set and observe standards, and the companies should be properly monitored and inspected,” she concludes.

White Nile staff at the site were unwilling to answer questions about their operations. Mr. Henry Mukisha, named as Director on the White Nile website, refused to discuss the matter when contacted by phone.  He said “I do not talk to journalists, it is just a waste of time.  You have to write.”  He did not respond to an email enquiry or answer follow-up calls.

NEMA inspectorate staff, contacted for comment, did not respond to emailed questions.

Local content

Tullow Oil representatives, however, spoke up in defence of their contractor, and of their own role in promoting local capacity for waste management.

Herbert Ntare, Tullow Uganda’s Environment Health and Safety Advisor, confirms that the company is in the process of moving 17,000 tonnes of waste to the White Nile site, and a further 27,000 tonnes to the Nakasongola waste treatment facility run by the Uganda government owned Luwero Industries.   Ntale insists that White Nile is storing the waste in lined pits that are as safe as Tullow’s temporary storage facilities.

Asked why waste is being delivered before the treatment plant has been built, Abdul Kibuuka, Tullow Uganda’s Public Affairs Manager, explained that White Nile is under contract to receive the waste by the end of 2015, but is not required to start treating it until 2016. “You need to separate the issues of storage and treatment,” he said. He added that White Nile’s imported treatment equipment is currently clearing customs, and he is confident that the plant will be able to treat the backlog of waste by the end of 2016.

Kibuuka emphasises that Uganda’s waste management capacity “started with zero” and that “We [Tullow] sponsored trips abroad for NEMA to learn about oil wastes.”  He adds that the oil companies see waste management as a prime opportunity for local content, and Tullow has been glad to support the development of a local company.  He concludes that “In six months people will turn round and say ‘This [White Nile plant] is really good for Uganda.’”

Excess capacity

For the time being, however, civil society observers in Hoima are puzzled by the development of a new waste plant when a hi-tech facility opened in April only a dozen kilometres away from Hohwa.

Located by the new highway on the outskirts of Nyamasoga village, this is a joint venture between a South African company, Enviroserve, and a Ugandan partner called Green Albertine.

Enviroserve Landfill Manager, Joel Ogarubo, shows a doubly lined pit that will be filled with stabilised wastes.  At total of eight such pits are planned for the site. (Photo: Nick Young)

Enviroserve Landfill Manager, Joel Ogarubo, shows a doubly lined pit that will be filled with stabilised wastes. At total of eight such pits are planned for the site. (Photo: Nick Young)

Oil in Uganda called at the Enviroserve site without an appointment, and was treated to a tour of the facilities, including what is almost certainly the best equipped chemical laboratory in Uganda.

Samples from every truckload of waste are rigorously tested. Solid wastes are stabilised and deposited in double-lined landfill pits.  Eventually, these will grow to 30 metre high hillocks of neutralised waste.  Meanwhile, all rainwater run-off from the pits is collected and pumped to an effluent treatment unit, which removes all residues and contaminants.

Water samples from eleven monitoring boreholes on the site are regularly tested, to check for any contamination of the water table.

Hoima environment officer, Joseline Nyangoma, describes the plant as “world class” and laments the fact that it is no longer receiving oil wastes.

Enviroserve won a contract from Total to handle the wastes in its operational area.  The very first consignment was from Purongo sub-county in Nwoya District where, notoriously, Heritage Oil had dumped drill cuttings on a farmer’s land.  But now the plant has taken delivery of all the oil waste generated in exploration and appraisal drilling in Total’s block—and delays in Uganda’s progress to oil production mean that years may pass before the waste begins to flow again.

Regional opportunities

Makerere University trained chemist, Andrew Wedulo, shows off equipment in the Enviroserve lab. (Photo: Nick Young)

Makerere University trained chemist, Andrew Wedulo, shows off equipment in the Enviroserve lab. (Photo: Nick Young)

Enviroserve Country Manager in Uganda, Jennifer Bangirana, remains confident that the company will get a return on its multimillion-dollar investment.  Although Uganda’s oil industry was a draw for the firm, she points out that they can handle many other kinds of waste and expect to find customers across the region.

They already have some small contracts in Uganda to treat and dispose of other industrial wastes, and are now looking further afield for clients in Tanzania, South Sudan and Eastern DRC.   Bangirana believes that the scarcity of sophisticated treatment plants makes regional markets viable, noting that some wastes are trucked as far as 2,000 kilometres to an Enviroserve plant in Mozambique.

This business plan chimes with the Ugandan government vision of an oil producing Hoima District becoming a well-connected regional hub for advanced industries.  Regional access will be significantly improved by an ‘Albertine backbone’ road from Kigumba to Kyenjojo, which is now being upgraded from murram to tarmac with finance from the World Bank and Africa Development Bank.

In the short term, however, Uganda has moved from having no oil waste management capacity to having excess capacity and the companies will have to weather the doldrums of an oil industry that is not yet booming.

Nicholas Young is the Founding Managing Editor, Oil in Uganda.