Government has suspended its geothermal exploration activities at Kibiro Village in Kigorobya Sub-county, Hoima District, according to the Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, Mr Robert Kasande.
The suspension follows some substance that spilled out of a hole spreading into the environment sending shockwaves among the residents.
On November 1, 2019, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development awarded a contract M/S Royal Techno Industries Ltd to drill 16 temperature gradient wells at Kibiro, Buranga and Amoropii hot springs in Hoima, Bundibugyo and Pakwach districts respectively.
The exploration was to find whether there are geothermal reserviours in the two areas. The gradient well in Hoima is near Kibiro hot spring.
However, on March 29, 2020, exploration activity hit a snag after some matter oozed out of the well.
“Unfortunately, as a project challenge, during the drilling of the eighth and last well on the night of March 29, 2020, a blow-out happened which resulted in an uncontrolled discharge of gas, drilling fluids, geothermal fluids and sediments,” Mr Kasande said.
“A limited oil sheen was observed on sediments. The discharge caused public concern and misinformation as well,” he added.
The PS said preliminary findings show that the surface at the site was covered with a mixture of clay, sand and drilling mud sending an unpleasant smell characteristic of hydrocarbon spillage.
The spillage mixture of clay, drilling mud and sand surrounded Mr Julius Kiiza Rubanjwa’s house about 60 metres downstream from the well towards Lake Albert. His pit latrine was also filled by mud fluids from the well.
This forced the ministry to dispatch a team of experts from the Directorate of Geological Surveys and Mines, Ministry of Water and Environment and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to Kibiro so that they can assess the situation.
Other officials were from the Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU), Environment Protection Police Unit, Health Safety and Environment Unit, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, Hoima District Local Government and the Senior Presidential Advisor on Oil and Gas and Mining, Dr Frederick Kabagambe Kaliisa.
The team reported that an access road to the neighbouring Kyabarangwa landing site had clay, mud and sand residue.
The ministry stated, thus, what the team saw:
“The water reeds along the shore of the lake [Albert] had a black deposit resembling crude oil at the water level mark”.
“However, the oily sheen was observed kilometres away on all reeds along the shores of the lake in the surrounding areas and it might be associated with algae.”
Mr Kasande clarified that the spillage from the Temperature Gradient Holes (TGH) in Kibiro and Panyimur is non-threatening.
“This incident is considered benign because even the ecology was not affected as evidenced by aquatic species that were surviving normally at the shoreline”, he said.
However, Mr Kasande says the team was unable to identify the discharge for them to effectively quantify the components.
“Although the discharge was not known so as to effectively quantify the materials discharged into the environment, given the length of time during which the incident occurred (more than nine hours), it can be concluded that significant quantities of materials (natural gas, clay, water, drilling mud and limited traces of oil) were released into the environment,” the PS continued.
Recent media reports had indicated that the substance that gushed out of the hole was oil. But Mr Kasande refutes this.
“Whereas what happened in Kibiro is almost similar to what happens during an oil spill incident, it may be erroneous to dub the incident an oil spill.”
“This is because of the composition of the observed materials that were released into the environment – predominantly sand, water and clay from the subsurface while is in trace levels mainly recognisable by the characteristics of hydrocarbon smell,” he said.
Following the incident, the ministry has decided to halt TGH drilling activities both in Kibiro and Panyimur until a comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is conducted according to the new National Environment Act No.5 of 2019.
It is in accordance with this Act that the ministry commits to resolve any conflict arising out of this occurrence.