More than 100 people were killed overnight in an explosion at an illegal oil refining depot in Nigeria’s Rivers state, a local government official and an environmental group said.
“The fire outbreak occurred at an illegal bunkering site and it affected more than 100 people who were burned beyond recognition,” the state commissioner for petroleum resources, Goodluck Opiah, said on Saturday.
Unemployment and poverty in the oil-producing Niger Delta have made illegal crude refining an attractive business but with deadly consequences. Crude oil is tapped from a web of pipelines owned by major oil companies and refined into products in makeshift tanks.
The hazardous process has led to many fatal accidents and has polluted a region already blighted by oil spills in farmland, creeks and lagoons.
The Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre said several vehicles that were in a queue to buy illegal fuel were burned in the explosion.
Al Jazeera’s Fidelis Mbah said that there are dozens of illegal oil businesses scattered around southern Nigeria.
“The unemployed youth are trying to produce oil on their own in order to sell to survive,” he said, speaking from Abuja. “The youths know that this is dangerous but because of the poverty levels, they have taken to [working in] illegal refineries.”
“The government said the owner of the illegal refinery is presently on the run and they have declared him wanted,” Mbah added. “They’re hoping that if he’s apprehended, they will find out exactly what happened.”
At least 25 people, including some children, were killed in an explosion and fire at another illegal refinery in Rivers state in October.
In February, local authorities said they had started a crackdown to try to put a stop to the refining of stolen crude, but with little apparent success.
Government officials estimate that Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer and exporter, loses an average of 200,000 barrels per day of oil – more than 10 percent of production – to those tapping or vandalising pipelines.
That has forced oil companies to regularly declare force majeure on oil and gas exports.