Carol Van Dam in Washington contributed to this report
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - South Sudan's petroleum minister said Monday that an oil spill from a pipeline two weeks ago which polluted several areas of former Unity state has been contained, but the minister warned more oil pipelines may rupture as Juba makes plans to boost oil production.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the oil pipeline broke on Sept. 25, South Sudan petroleum minister Awow Daniel Chuang said the oil spill, 15 kilometers north of Lalubo in Northern Liech state, was contained after Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC) dispatched foreign experts to the scene last week.
Russia crew repairs pipeline
"A Russian repair team from the company GOPC went to the site and they contained the leakage because the pipeline has been constructed a long time ago and is aging and as it ages, weak points always develop," said Chuang.
Greater Pioneer Operating Company is an oil consortium owned by China's National Petroleum Corporation, Malaysia's Petronas, India's ONGC Videsh and South Sudan's government-run Nile Petroleum Corporation.
Chuang said as much as 2,000 barrels of oil could have leaked into the surrounding land and water since the pipeline burst on Sept. 25.
When asked about the spill's impact on residents, Chuang said the leakage took place in a remote area where there is no human settlement.
Local population affected?
Budang County commissioner Gatiep Both Gabriel disputed that claim, saying the local population has been seriously affected by the spill.
"The leakage has stopped, but the impact is so big. It is drying trees, killing cattle, and poisoning people, and the water is falling into the Nile," Gabriel told South Sudan in Focus.
Gabriel fears people living along the River Nile, especially nearby villagers, are drinking contaminated water.
Chuang said plans are under way to retrieve the leaked oil with powerful vacuums placed on trucks.
"The oil and the water will be sucked by vacuum trucks so that it is retrieved and taken back to the system because when you take water and oil, they can be taken back to the system," Chuang told VOA, "and the solid is treated to a level where it is environmentally friendly."
Chuang said the spill covers about 400 square meters, but Gabriel believes the affected area is much larger.
Chuang said some pipelines in the area have not be in use since late 2013 when fighting broke out in South Sudan, and warned there could be more oil leaks on the horizon.
"As long as we have started to resume oil in block 1, 2, and 4, since the pipelines are not new, then we should expect the leakage from time to time. What is important is to respond to those leakages from time to time," Chuang told South Sudan in Focus.
Environmental audit planned
Chuang says the ministry plans to contract a foreign company to carry out an environmental audit.
Last week, a child was born with a deformity in Northern Liech State. The child's photograph was shared widely on social media, which prompted public debate on the effects oil pollution has had on local residents.
Chuang said the child has been taken to Nairobi, Kenya, for further medical examination.