On January 9, 2014, a potentially dangerous chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane (MCHM) (MCHM is used in processing coal) spilled out of 17 storage tanks into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (USA), just under 2 miles from the city’s only fresh water intake.
An estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM leaked into the river causing 300,000 residents of the area to go without water for over a month. President Obama declared this a federal emergency and US National Guard troops delivered bottled water to residents to sustain them through the rest of the clean up.
Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent account of the event along with the background of corporate negligence and lack of regulatory oversight that contributed to yet another environmental disaster.
Although chemical spills happen every day (literally…last year we had 3,885 self-reported spills from 76 different publicly traded companies in the US), when one of this magnitude happens, I can’t help but think about what may be happening outside the public’s view in places less accustomed to 24-7 media and accountability.
I make the connection to the energy sector in Africa.
The oil & gas industry is heavily dependent on chemicals through all stages, using and processing compounds that aid in drilling, cementing, completion, and production. An article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a federally funded research foundation) notes that “the occupational hazards of exposure to [oil & gas chemicals] has received little attention.”
This is in the US where we have a well-developed environmental protection and public health research framework. It is no revelation that environmental regulation in resource rich African nations is often unable to match the political clout and professional credibility of the energy industry. This translates to double standards and unhindered negligent (sometimes criminal) behavior on the part of companies.
Some years ago, I worked as an environmental consultant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I remember talking with a manager of the Environmental Protection Authority who was frustrated by the lack of capacity within his organization. He told me it was like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back. This is a tough fight no matter whom you face; but particularly when dealing with the well-resourced energy sector.
East Africa is the next big focus for the oil and gas industry. Significant deposits have been discovered in countries like Tanzania and Uganda. The concern of the “resource curse” notwithstanding, many people believe that this industry will pay off for the region. And I agree; I believe it SHOULD pay off! But, as highlighted, there are characteristics of this industry that can have a negative bearing on the population.
Oil & gas and other resource extraction industries are by no means the only sources of environmental concern. But their contribution to the issue points to a desperate need that countries have to develop their environmental regulation capacities to proactively guide the sustainable development of the extractive industries.
This is the reason I feel very strongly about human capital development on the African continent. It is the most critical component of Africa’s development process. Of course, a competitive and well-developed labor pool is central for economic development. But in the context of sustainability and resource protection, it will help ensure that there is capacity, in organizations like Ethiopia’s EPA, to guard against intended and unintended impacts of an ineffectively regulated private sector.