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Opinions of Monday, 7 May 2012

Columnist: Anim-Mensah, Alexander

Oil Prospecting, Discovery and Drilling

- How Ready is Ghana to Handle Some of the Possible Consequences?

The “booming” of oil in Ghana has brought smiles and high anticipation of improved economy onto the government and the citizens as new local businesses, big and small are springing up amidst influx of international companies into Ghana. Ghana’s future looks bright with all the rewards surrounding petroleum business operations.

While our minds are on the many positive prospects and rewards; have we thought about any of the following?

• The possible negative impacts, risks or catastrophic consequences associated with petroleum?

• What measures are in place to effectively detect, monitor and deal with the above mentioned, if the consequences surfaces in the near future? Ghana being a developing country is exposed to the possibility of the oil companies adopting inappropriate technologies in their operations. Potentially, this leads to serious environmental and health effects from prospecting, drilling and transportation. The concern here is; such impact could threaten lives in Ghana and her environs if proper steps are not taken.

This article is thus to draw awareness and to elucidate Ghanaians on the other side of petroleum operations as we enjoy the rewards, and finally to ask questions on how ready are our institutions to handle it any consequences. Offshore oil prospecting involves sending seismic waves into the ground, this disorients marine lives. Oil drilling requires extensive infrastructure, including jet-landing strips, roads, pipelines, etc, this also displaces wild and aquatic animals from their natural habitats. On shore infrastructure construction, oil rig operations, pipelines could cause damage to ocean formations and coastal lands.

Any spill from drilling, handling and transportation of petroleum and its wastes could take decades for fully clean up. In Offshore oil rigs operations, discharge of large volumes of drilling muds, waste, and water containing toxic metals and chemicals are usually dumped into the sea. Some of the wastes are re-injected into the drilled hole or are transported to the shore for disposal. Spills are lethal to marine lives, and may concentrate in some aquatic animals and plant (bioaccumulative characteristics), which we likely may consume them. In addition, some wastes associated with petroleum drilling include drilling muds, slimes and sludge which some may contain technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM).

Some of these sludge disposals including land - farming and tailing ponds which exposure may be deadly to some wild life and humans. Also, disposal sites workers are at risks of lung cancer from inhaling radon gas. Moreover, petroleum and its waste could contain high levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) in addition to other toxic metals and chemicals which could be lethal in high concentrations.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are of great concern since it adds up to the already existing environmental PAHs. PAHs are a group of over hundred chemically-related substances that have environment persistence and varied toxicity. Some PAHs are known to cause cancer (carcinogenic), cause changes in our gene (mutagenic) and/or acts as potent immune system suppressor (immunosuppressant).

How do people get exposed to PAHs?

Exposure to PAHs includes inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact in both non-occupational and occupational facilities. Breathing (inhalation), eating or drinking PAH contaminated foods or drinks (ingestion), respectively or touching (contact) PAH containing materials or combinations, makes one prone to the dangers of PAHs.

Varied concentrations of PAHs are present in foodstuffs. Charring meat or barbecuing food over a charcoal, wood, or other type of fire significantly increases the concentration of PAHs. Also, water could be contaminated with substantial amounts of PAHs since these chemicals can leach from the soil into water or can enter water from industrial effluents or accidental spills of petroleum products. PAHs fallout from the air could also contaminate the soil. Occupational exposure may occur in workers breathing exhaust fumes including motor vehicle drivers, mechanics, street vendors, as well as those involved in mining, metal works, and oil refining and through inhalation of fumes from refuse burning. The above shows that PAHs exposure for most people are on regular basis. Some exposures may involve more than one route simultaneously, affecting the total PAH absorbed by the body.

What are some of the potential sources of PAHs related to petroleum activities? Venting activities are means by which PAHs could be releases into the air, likewise are spills associated with handling and transporting of the petroleum. In addition, inefficient collection, handling and treatment of wastes could also contaminate both the soil and water. Furthermore, inefficiently treated oil waste in landfills could leach and threaten ground/drinking water. What are some of the health Issues with PAHs?

Health impacts of PAHs depends on the PAH types exposure, concentration and exposure route (i.e. breathing, eating, touching or the combination). In addition, the length of exposure, pre-existing health conditions and age are other factors.

Short term health effects in humans is not clear, however, high levels of pollutant mixtures containing PAHs has resulted in symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, eye irritation, and confusion. Some mixtures of PAHs are also known to cause skin irritation and inflammation. Long-term health effects include cataracts, kidney and liver damage including jaundice, breathing problems and asthma-like symptoms, decreased immune function, and lung function abnormalities. Repeated contact with the skin could results in redness and inflammation. PAHs effects on human health include causing cancer (carcinogenic), birth defects and decreased weights in offsprings (teratogenic), gene mutation or genotoxic damage (mutagenic) and immune suppression or toxicity (immunotoxicity or immunosuppression).

What are some of the treatment methods for these oily wastes? Wastes are inevitable and so are with the petroleum activities but some treatments methods like phytoremediation, bioremediation, chemicals oxidation, and the combinations in addition to others could be used to capture or treat PAHs. Phytoremediation involves using some special plants to capture PAHs from the air, soil or water. Bioremediation involves using bacteria and other microbes to break PAHs down, whereas chemical oxidation means applying chemicals, heat, etc. to break the waste down. The treatment method and effectiveness depends on the PAHs being treated and the disposal regulations. However, pursuing proper waste characterization, segregation and reuse could minimize disposals to landfills and associated consequences.

With the above said, are there any take home questions for Ghana? For example • Are the local communities surrounding the petroleum areas as well as Ghanaians aware of some of the possible consequences with petroleum?

• How aware are they to recognize changes, report any abnormal observation, or deal with consequences in their own small way?

• How ready, equipped and empowered is Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess, monitor and characterize the magnitude of any environmental consequences?

• How ready, equipped and empowered is Ministry of Health ( MOH) to assess, monitor, characterize the magnitude of any health impacts or detect the emergence of health issues associated with the petroleum, as well as provide treatment and prevention methods?

• How ready, equipped and empowered is Food and Drugs Board (FDB) to assess, monitor or detect, the effects of the petroleum effects on our food chains since most concentrations could end up in humans?

• How ready, equipped and empowered is Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL) and other partners to assess, monitor and treat water for drinking in the advent of contamination?

• How ready and equipped are all stakeholder to draw awareness to the potential consequences, monitor, assess, qualify and quantify anticipated consequences while providing mitigative measures and treatment to safeguard inhabitants of Ghana?

• What systems and procedures are in place to minimize any possible consequences?

• What treatment methods are employed in treating/ to treat the wastes and how effective are they?

• How effective are the existing and newly proposed waste collection and treatment processes? • What legacy are we leaving for the future generation from our today’s activities? • Are there backup plans, if the existing ones are ineffective or fails? • How well is Ghana learning from some of the consequences related to environmental and health impacts in other oil producing countries including Nigeria?

The above information shows that PAHs are also ready present in the environmental and people are constantly exposed but generally at low levels. Petroleum activities are known to contribute higher levels of PAHs which will add to the already existing which could pose problems.

Hence, pursuing activities involving the petroleum responsibly will be necessary not to threaten our existence, including that of the future generations. Instituting proper laws, policies, systems, and equipping the various ministries departments, institutions, and agencies could safeguard Ghanaians while we build a better Ghana. The notion of no one above the law if well practiced with the necessary right checks and balances will enforce most of the policies. In addition making good decisions will assist us reap the rewards of petroleum emergence in Ghana. God bless Ghana.

Alexander Anim-Mensah, PhD

Chemical Engineer Cincinnati, OH USA alexraymonda@yahoo.com