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At least 18 people, including a pregnant woman, died in southern Nigeria when an illegal oil refinery exploded into flames, a security official and residents said on Tuesday.
The blaze which broke out late on Sunday in Rivers State, occurred when a home-made refinery ignited a nearby oil reservoir, leaving victims severely burned, a security official said.
Residents fear the death toll could grow given the number of people believed to be on site at the time.
“25 injured people were rescued,” Olufemi Ayodele, spokesman for the local Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps
The workers at the site were refining oil taken from a vandalized pipe, according to Chima Avadi, a local activist. “When they scoop from the point where they vandalized the pipe, they will take to where they were cooking. That is how fire got there,” Avadi said.
Explosions at locally run refineries are common in oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta region, where where most of the nation’s oil facilities are targeted by chronic oil theft.
In addition to the many lives, Nigeria officially lost at least $3 billion worth of crude oil to theft between January 2021 and February 2022.
Criminal operators often avoid regulators by setting up refineries in remote areas. The workers at such facilities rarely adhere to safety standards, leading to frequent fires, including one in Imo state last year that killed more than 100 people were killed.
“The money they make from there in one or two days is more than what a civil servant can make in a year,” Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre Executive director Fyneface Dumnamene said.
His group has been advocating for environmental reforms and an end to the illegal activities. But amid growing economic hardship in Nigeria, “people are looking for opportunities to make ends meet,” Dumnamene said.
In addition to the many lives, Nigeria lost at least $3 billion worth of crude oil to theft between January 2021 and February 2022, the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission said last year.