Living On The Edge: Abandoned Coal Mines In Enugu Are Eclipsing Communities

Years of coal mining in some communities in Enugu State and attendant negligence of those mining sites are now leading to dangerous environmental degradation that threatens those communities.

Anthony Onoh and his family are marking time; their only home, sandwiched by abandoned mines, may sooner than later be swallowed by the mines; when it will happen is what they don’t know.

Onoh’s home is in Amuzam and Colliery, both at Ngwo in Enugu North Local Government Area, Southeast Nigeria, where the defunct Nigerian Coal Corporation (NCC) had mined coal. Coal mining in Enugu started in 1916, eight years after coal was discovered and long before Nigeria made a discovery of crude oil in commercial quantity at Oloibiri in 1956 in the present day Bayelsa State.

The house, Onoh says, is showing signs that its days are numbered but he and his nuclear family have nowhere to relocate to. “We live here because we don’t have options. We access our house through impassable routes. The foundation of our building is cracking and falling off. Surely, it will fall if nothing is urgently being done to remedy the situation currently,” he said.

“By our right is the abandoned Colliery mine. Behind us is the Amuzam site. We can’t farm here anymore. There are no more sources of livelihood here. When we built this house, the gully was not spreading at this pace.”

Mercy, Anthony Onoh’s wife said they see each day as the last for their house, because the approaching erosion occasioned by the abandoned coal mines recently pulled down the perimeter fence of the house.

 “A few days ago, the remaining part of our fence fell down,” Mercy Onoh said.  Our cries have not been listened to at all. Some property owners around here left many years ago because of the dangers. You wake up and see that a part of your house has collapsed.”

“You can see that we are surrounded by gullies. Environmental officials have been coming. Some said they came from Abuja. But nothing much has been done. The Enugu State government is trying, but the speed this gully is spreading demands more action.”

Like Onoh’s family house, a worship center, Rivers of Life Int. Mission Center, sited near a landslide, is also waiting to be consumed by the gully erosion.  “The fear is that the gully is expanding daily without the corresponding intervention. If nothing is done urgently, this church may be pulled down. This is not our prayer,” says a member of the centre who identified himself as Nnamdi.

Coal mines abandoned after civil war

Coal Camp, Enugu State.

When it was discovered, Nigerian coal was exported to neighbouring Ghana, United Kingdom, Egypt, and South Africa. But the production was crippled during the Nigerian civil war leading to many of the coal mines abandoned. “Nigerian Civil War negatively impacted coal production; many mines were abandoned during the war,” the Board was quoted as saying in a report.

Following the war, production never completely recovered and coal production levels were erratic. Attempts at mechanising production ended badly, as both the implementation and maintenance of imported mining equipment proved troublesome, and affected production. 

Several privatisation attempts −to salvage the coal mining sector− including the one by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 up till 2004 did not bring back the fortune of the once flourishing industry. All these, including the selling off of its assets by the NCC to settle debts owed its staff meant that the mines were forever abandoned.

Gully leading to Coal camp. Photo Credit: Ben Aroh

The abandoned mines are now threatening human existence and residents are helpless. “It is pathetic that we have been abandoned since coal became less fancied in this country. My father told me that our area was a centre of attraction during the coal exploration. Thousands of people earned their living here,” Onoh said.

‘Flood washed away our relatives, homes before government’s interventions’

Amuzam, one of the abandoned coal mines, is littered with relics of collapsed buildings. Residents say the once lively community could have been wiped because of the coal mines but for the reclamation by the Enugu State Government and the World Bank.

“You can see many collapsed storey-buildings. Some people also lost their lives. I recall a few that were swept by floods. Some of their corpses were never recovered. The outcry forced the government’s intervention,” a resident Paulinus Ossai, told our correspondent.

Collapsed building at Amuzam. Photo Credit: Ben Aroh

“The construction company did a good job in filling the gullies. But many affected areas are yet to be covered.”

Communal efforts to reclaim their lands yielded little or no result, says John Enwu, a community leader. Their farmlands have equally been taken over by the environmental degradation that the abandoned coal mines have brought.

“Our farmlands and residential buildings were destroyed before this reclamation. Another community which this ecological problem has adversely affected is Umueze-Asata, where farmlands have been washed away and getting very close to residential buildings,” Enwu told our correspondent.

 James Eze who lives in the same community shares his experience. “We tried all that we could. The erosion has gone beyond our local efforts. We dig holes just to slow down water pressures and water currents. We also fill bags of cement with sand just to hedge it off, but the water pressure is always too much.”

At Okpuno-Nsude, in Udi Local Government Area where Okpara mines are located, residents live in constant fear during rainy seasons. Unlike Amuzam, the intervention at Okpuno-Nsude is still in the pipeline.

This hitherto agrarian community has become a ghost of itself as the landslides spread meteorically. The natives adopt various erosion-control measures to curtail it, but it keeps spreading. “We are worried that the underground tunnels that have been there for many years may cave in one day,” Sheddy Ozoene, a native of the village said.

Titus Ozoani, another villager corroborates Ozoene and said they live in fear. “We live in fear every day. Through communal efforts, we plant bamboo trees to ameliorate the situation. Although it curbs the excesses, a lot needs to be done,” he told our reporter.

“There was a time when the authorities of the World Bank came to supervise it. Ever since then, we have remained expectant. They are yet to return again. This erosion has killed our farming activities. The effect is devastating.”

At the moment, the state government under the Enugu State-Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP), a World Bank assisted project, is carrying out a reclamation, channeling, and remediation at Colliery gully erosion site being handled by Anbeez Services Ltd. The work at Amuzam gully site was also carried out by the same company.

Walking in the shadow of death

Seven communities under Agbaja cultural zone; Nsude, Obioma, Amuzam, Nachi, Eke, 9th Mile, and Ngwo, all with abandoned coal mines have an undetermined and dangerous hollow beneath them.

Leaders of the areas, known as Agbaja Leaders of Thought, who engaged the services of environmentalists and geologists say they were told that there are danger zones that could cave in like earthquakes and are demanding the maps to determine these red zones.

Agu Gab Agu, a professor of law and the secretary of the group says the mines were shut hurriedly without due processes. Agu blamed the Nigerian Government for failing to do the right thing in reclaiming the affected areas at the time the coals were shut down.

“These mines were shut hurriedly without due processes. Usually, when mines are being closed, there should be props or trees to hold the openings in the bowel of the earth. They are large openings that when they start to cave in, they will bring down everything on their top,” he said of the imminent danger.

Bamboo trees planted in gullies to check erosion expansion at Okpuno Nsude. Photo Credit: Ben Aroh

“The mines travel many kilometers, as far as Ebe, Obioma, and Nachi. So we are on top of them without knowing that underneath is a hollow. Some communities, like Nsude, will soon cave in.”

They are apprehensive of what could happen soon. So they are seeking to have a map of the area.  “We have commissioned some work by environmentalists and geologists on that,” Agu says. “Our query is that those who did this thing should give us the maps. We want to know the danger zones.”

“Nobody can discountenance that the problem of Ugwu Onyeama may be part of this development. If it passed through 9th Mile, with ongoing development there, it means that one day, it will just go down. Most of those lands may not be useful to the owners again. They ought to be restored.” 

Nigerian Mining Act 2007, although does not specify the penalties for non-reclamation of mined areas, is explicit in ensuring standard practices at mine zones particularly by those who worked on the mine.

Chapter 4 of the Act, entitled ‘Environmental Considerations and Rights of Host Communities, states that, “The minister shall by order require the grantee of a mining lease to restore any area in respect of which mining operation has been, is being, or is to be carried out, on or after the date on which this Act comes into operation.”

“Where land which is subject of a mining lease has been exploited, the reclamation of mined-out areas shall be restored by the applicant under the condition of its grant, otherwise the relevant provision of section 10 of this Act shall apply.” 

Government Interventions

Vicent Egechukwu Obetta, project coordinator of Enugu State-NEWMAP, revealed that, “The project intervention on the erosion areas in Ngwo communities has commenced with the award of contracts for the six sites.”

Obetta said the project for reclamation of Ugwuto-Nsude  mine site was successfully completed in October 2018.

Investigations by this newspaper show that intervention work is ongoing at four fingers of the abandoned mines located at Isata, Colliery, St Theresa’s and Amuzam, although at a snail’s pace.

This, according to findings, is as a result of paucity of funds towards the counterpart funding scheme. “The reclamation of Amuzam, and ongoing works at some other affected sites of the landslides show that Gov Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi has not forgotten these areas,” a local source who did not want to be named said.

Records show that former governor Sullivan Chime paid a counterpart fund of N30 million and another N30 million in 2013, and later approved 200 Million in 2014 for NEWMAP projects as counterpart funds with the World Bank.

This story was produced in partnership with Civic Media Lab under its Grassroots News Project.


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