Monrovia – The swamps or wetlands along Liberia’s coast is said to play a crucial role in the country’s ecosystem. They are nesting grounds for sea creatures, which lay and hatch their eggs before returning to the rough sea. Without them Liberia’s fishing industry could be endangered.
The wetlands also play a crucial role in flushing inland waterways of pollutants and reducing flooding during the rainy season. All this could be in danger according to environmentalists. They say gas stations built by Total Petroleum Company in areas such as SKD Boulevard in Congo Town, 72nd, Free Port of Monrovia and Martha Elbow on Bushrod Island, threaten these protected wetlands.The land along these roadways is attractive to gas station operators because they carry the large numbers of traffic. Critics say nothing is being done by responsible agencies to stop construction on wetlands. “The relationship between the ocean, lagoons and swamps or wetland, is because the productivity of the ocean depend on our wetlands,” said Jerome Nyenka, General Manager of Planet Management services Inc, an environmental evaluation company and a former acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA).”
“Many of the animals with shells in the sea do not lay their eggs in the rough ocean but they come to lagoon and wetlands to lay their eggs. So if you destroy the wetland, you have just destroyed the productivity of the ocean. And fishermen will come empty many months without catching any fishes.” Mr. Nyenka said chemicals that are found in petroleum products are very harmful to a productive place that hosts living things.“In typical petroleum, we have close to 218 different chemicals, and once there is a leakage from any of the tanks placed underground by the gas station, we will lose the entire wetland, which is not good for us, if we want to continue to eat fresh fish and other seafood,” said Mr. Nyenka.
He fears the Environmental Social Impact Assessment, (ESIA) meant to assess whether the projects will impact the environment, was not done properly by the EPA. Mr. Nyenka who said along every ocean, there are lagoons and wetlands, which serve as septic tanks, and that wetlands were not created by mistake. In that, should in case of any heavy down pour of rain, the lagoons, swamps or wetlands will hold the excess water, so that flood does not occur.
After problems arose in the South African province of Gauteng in 2001 the International AGRICULTURE, CONSERVATION, ENVIRONMENT AND LAND AFFAIRS laws regarding the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), pointed out some guideline for the construction and upgrade of filling Stations and associated tanks installations saying: “*There is a potential danger and environmental risk associated with filling station developments. The construction and operation of such an activity can have a substantial negative impact on the environment, in relation to its sensitivity.
* Past experience has shown that filling stations are major sources of pollution in Gauteng and unless appropriate measures are in place, severe environmental impacts can be expected. Filling stations have a potential significant impact on:
* Natural ecosystems and habitats, and the renewable and non-renewable natural resources of the Province such as air, water, land an all forms of life.” Liberia’s Environmental Protection and Management Law states the following: “No one should direct or block a river, lake or wetland from its course and no one should not drain any river, like or wetland.” In the past under the leadership of the late Ben Dorni, the EPA had refused Total permission to build in these areas because of environmental concerns according to the EPA wetland Protection Officer, Mr. Joseph Yeneken. He said makeshift structures were broken down. But since new Director Anyaa Vohiri, took over, construction begun. Mr. Yeneken further pointed out that, even Martha Elbow hotel, located Bushrod Island, outside of Monrovia and also near another Total gas station, was stopped from constructing her hotel at the identical spot, because it was extending far into the wetland, but after the death of Mr. Dorni, he saw the hotel constructed. Mr Yeneken went as far as to say he does not believe that EPA gave permits to Total Company to build in the wetlands, because every gas station should have a permit from the Ministry of Public works and the EPA.
Mr. Sehgran Gomah EPA Director of Press and Public Affairs, denied there were any problems with the granting of permits. “The Total and SKD boulevard issue has long been addressed by the EPA; this is why the gas station is constructed there. We have Environmental experts who do environmental assessments regarding the Environmental Social Impact Assessment, (ESIA) laws on wet lands, and all rules were carried out before construction started.” And yet Mr. Gomah could not confirm that the EPA had actually granted Total permits.EPA and Public Works Unable to Confirm Permits Trying to find out whether the EPA or Public Works had actually granted the permits proved a long and difficult process. FPA was first directed to the office responsible for giving out permits. The head was out, but via mobile, he instructed one of his staff to take this journalist to the office of the EPA inspectors, who said they were only responsible to inspect wetland and other sites unsuitable for construction, and report to their bosses, but they were not responsible for giving out permits and so could not answer any questions. As to whether Public Works Ministry gave Total a permit, FPA was told by Press and Public Affairs Director, Mr. Yousefu Kieta, to come back the following week because the person responsible for permits at the ministry was on a weeklong workshop.
However, after the week, FPA visited the Ministry twice and Mr. Kieta was out and in an attempt to call his phone, there was no answer. Following that disappointment at the Ministry of Public works, FPA visited the Total Gas station head office on UN Drive, to find out if they received any permits from EPA and Public Works Ministry before constructing their filling stations.
A woman there who would only identify herself as Sylvia, asked to hear the nature of the complaint, before letting her boss address it, saying she was not authorized to speak for the company.
Sylvia then gave a phone number that FPA could call back to get a date for the interview, but two days later, she informed this journalist to call early the next morning before going in to meet her boss, because her boss was about to leave the country.
But when FPA called several times the next morning, Sylvia refused to answer the calls. Independent Expert Says Construction Must Stop
According to environmental expert, Peter G. Mulbah of Conservation International, some of the wetlands are without doubt protected. “The SKD Boulevard is a protected wetland because it cuts between the Montserrado riverbank and mangrove swamp, so the EPA should not allow people to build in there.”
“EPA should stop those constructions in that area, but at times when EPA put a halt sign to stop a construction, the city council usually gives squatters rights to citizens to build in the identical area, so there is a struggle between the EPA and other local government and it should not be that way,” says Peter G. Mulbah who was speaking as an expert and not on behalf of CI. Mulbah said wetland is not waste land, because many people in the country usually use wetland to dump their garbage. “When the garbage enters a wetland, it does not only create pollution, but it destroys some species that live in the wetland. There are certain wetland identified that are considered qualified for protection, because it contains many kinds of protected species, so those wetland are protected by law, not to do any construction in them, and the Boulevard wetland is one of those.”
He disclosed that the wetlands are set aside by law, are considered protected areas because they are important in controlling climate change and global warming which are already causing destruction in Liberia. “We can use wetland to produce blue carbon projects, because the Liberian mangroves in the wetland have been tested and proven to have twice the oxygen produced by just one tree. We can even use those wet land to provide tourism sites for boat ride, to bring revenue in the country, but not to destroy it.”
Clarifying the difference between swamps that are deemed protected wetlands and the ones that are not, Mulbah said, swamps without protected species living in them can be developed but before that can take place the EPA must carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study. Community Demands Government HelpWhile the investigation was not able to uncover whether that EIA was done and whether the appropriate permits were awarded the people here in the area around the Total in SKD Boulevard community in Congo Town, say they have seen many problems since the station was built two years ago.
“Before Total came here, we had free flow of water, because we used to direct the water,” says Mrs. Shalyn Kamaboakai, a business center owner. “But since Total built, my shop has been flooded every raining season. Because of the flood, I do not have customers during the rain, so I am very worried as the rain approaches.” Mrs. Kamaboakai further narrated that Total constructed an open drainage that is used as toilet and garbage site by children and dwellers. She says Total promised to cover it, but since then Total has not done it. “This drainage affects my business because it smells and embarrasses my customers a lot. So I want the government to please make Total close this drainage and work on drainage we can use to direct our water.”
A resident who chose to be unnamed said they did experience flood before Total built their filling stations, but since the construction, the water table has risen. “The construction of Total affects us because the drainage overflows and the water flow backward and enter our homes, because it no longer flows freely.” Blaming the government, the source further said the governmental arm EPA is aware of the unfolding situation because Total could not build on her own without informing the government. “Total did not just come here on her own, to build in the wetland if she did not get the go ahead from the EPA, so government is responsible for what is happening to us.”
Speaker Promises Investigation The investments by Total were under the $20m amount that requires legislators’ approval but when made aware of the findings of this report House Speaker Alex Tyler, promised his committee will ask the experts and investigate the allegations. “Now that you have brought it to our attention, we will have the committee investigate,” he told FPA.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation/New Narratives Liberia Oil Reporting Project, which is part of the Foundation’s pan-African program Wealth of Nations (wealth-of-nations.org) See more at www.newnarratives.org