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Waste Management Regulations should respond to current environmental challenges

Petroleum activities are concentrated in the pristine Albertine Graben, an area of outstanding natural beauty and home to a number of wildlife species of national and international importance. The waste from exploration and production activities will, therefore, always be right at the heart of this ecologically sensitive area.

By Gerald Byarugaba and Julius Ssenyonjo

To date, solid and liquid waste from oil exploration activities has largely been confined in consolidation sites in different areas within the Graben awaiting removal and transportation to designated areas of treatment and safe disposal.

By 2014, Uganda’s solid and liquid drilling waste stockpiles, according to Tullow Oil and Total E&P, stood at 39,625 tons and 8227 cubic meters respectively. As the country heads into the production phase, more of this waste will be generated, necessitating timely and utmost readiness to safeguard Uganda’s environment and secure government’s revenue share.

Economically speaking, poor regulation and handling of oil waste management has the potential to significantly reduce the revenue Uganda can earn from exploitation of her oil resources. According to a 2014 report by the Office of the Auditor General on Regulation and Monitoring of Drilling Waste Management in the Albertine Region, almost 27 billion shillings was spent by oil companies on drilling waste management activities from 2010 to 2013. This is money that will have to be paid back to the companies eventually when Uganda starts producing oil as it is part of the recoverable costs.

Since 2015, a number of waste management companies have been contracted by the oil companies in Uganda to transfer the consolidated waste for treatment and safe disposal. Among these are Enviro-Serve in Nyamasoga, Hoima, and White Nile also in Hoima. However, in the absence of specific and up-to-date Waste Management Regulations for the Oil and Gas sector, ensuring coherent and effective management of waste by all the actors in the sector remains a challenge.

The operational waste management guidelines for oil and gas operations issued by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in 2012 are not sufficient to address transportation, treatment, recycling and disposal of petroleum waste. Although both The Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Act 2013 and The Petroleum (Refining, Conversion, Transmission and Midstream Storage) Act, 2013 provide for development of Petroleum Waste Management Regulations, these are only being put in place by NEMA. It is therefore critical that the regulations address critical issues towards ensuring an environmentally sustainable Oil and Gas industry in Uganda.

Firstly, petroleum waste management facilities must be placed away from residential areas, commercial areas, water bodies as well as farming and grazing areas. This is to avoid or minimize possible severe impacts on communities and wild life, arising from contact with petroleum waste. The 1999 Waste (environment) Management Regulations which are also currently under review recommend a distance of 1000 meters away from such places – and this limit is just for the non-hazardous waste treatment and disposal plants. Given the hazardous nature of the petroleum waste, and the fragile nature of the Albertine Graben, there is urgent need to set a standard distance in view of the nature of waste in question, and sensitivity of the Area.

Relatedly, climatological characteristics including rainfall intensity and frequency, wind movement and others must be given due consideration in setting requirements for situating waste treatment and disposal facilities. For example, the districts of Hoima and Kibaale which experience more severe winds during the rainy seasons are likely to facilitate quick transfer of air and surface pollutants to nearby and far-away places compared to districts of Buliisa, Nwoya, Amuru and Nebbi. Transportation of waste- including the nature of roads, nature of transporting vehicles and vessels, as well as cleaning of waste handling equipment and possibility of mixture of water used for cleaning equipment and run-off water during rainy seasons must be addressed. The regulations should therefore be clear on the kind of considerations actors must follow while choosing locations for waste management sites.

Douglas Oluoch

Douglas Oluoch

Secondly, it is very critical that the Regulations sufficiently address irresponsible dumping of hazardous petroleum waste. When Heritage Oil dumped tones of petroleum waste on the land of Douglas Oluoch, a farmer in Purongo Sub-county, Nwoya district, in a non-lined pit just a few kilometers from Murchison Falls National Park, the consequences could have been dire.

The peasant farmer had been paid less than three hundred dollars and convinced by the company that the waste would be harmless and in fact serve as fertilizer on his land. This unfortunate incident could have been avoided had there been stringent Petroleum Waste Management Regulations that protect less exposed communities from being taken advantage of by some actors in the petroleum sector. Bearing in mind the cumulative and synergistic dangers waste can have on the environment, the regulations should spell out penalties that are deterrent enough to prevent irresponsible dumping.

In addition, petroleum waste management regulations should strengthen the monitoring and inspection function played by NEMA in collaboration with the oil companies. Not only will this prevent adverse effects of waste on the environment but also reduce costs and maximize revenue for government by avoiding unwarranted clean-up activities.  At the moment, government records indicate laxity in monitoring and inspection of waste management in the Albertine Graben.

A 2014 report by the Office of the Auditor General points to gross irregularities. For example, that oil exploration companies did not adequately prepare and submit self-monitoring reports against set parameters as required. The report reveals that between 2010 to 2013, out of the expected twelve self-monitoring reports, Tullow Oil had submitted seven (58%). Total E&P and CNOOC were each expected to submit six reports, but the latter had only managed to submit three reports, while CNOOC had not submitted any. Interestingly, the same report further reveals that despite this repeated non-compliance of the companies, NEMA did not impose any sanctions or penalties on them. Regulations should be made to impose penalties for non-compliance to regular submission of quarterly self-monitoring reports by waste management operators.

In addition, the failure by NEMA to carry out independent verification of tests of both solid and liquid waste generated from drilling activities to corroborate and verify the results they received in the self-monitoring tests by oil companies undermines its role. Under such circumstances, it remains very difficult for NEMA to provide assurance on whether current environmental management practices have adversely affected the surrounding environment or not. The new regulations should therefore provide for independent verification tests of solid and waste samples from petroleum activities by NEMA to enable it ascertain the possibility of damage to the environment.

At district level, despite the fact that District Environment Officers were given trainings by NEMA to conduct inspections of oil and gas activities, they are not adequately executing this role. Instead, these officers only get engaged in monitoring oil and gas activities at the invitation of oil companies. This undermines effective and independent monitoring. The regulations, therefore, should empower District Environment Officers to conduct independent spot-checks and inspections of oil and gas waste management activities in their areas and share results with NEMA and other environmental lead agencies in Uganda.

Finally, good ideas remain merely ornamental if not well anchored in laws, policies, or regulations. NEMA’s move to put in place Petroleum Waste Management Regulations is an excellent effort towards ensuring sustainable management of the petroleum sub-sector in Uganda. However, good environmental management will depend on implementation and not just passing of those Waste Management Regulations.

Gerald Byarugaba works with the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) while Julius Ssenyonjo works with the Practicing Environmental Managers Organization (PEMO).