It is unlikely that the situation at Massahood Junction in Fyzabad, where a home was illegally constructed over an in-service 16-inch Heritage oil pipeline, is an isolated incident.
This country’s building and planning regulations are regularly flouted, as evidenced by the hundreds of structures—residential and commercial—in locations where they pose environmental and safety threats, as well as congestion and inconvenience.
Every year, particularly during the rainy season, citizens experience the catastrophic effects of unplanned and unauthorised developments when there are floods, landslides and other disasters, incurring significant losses and environmental degradation.
There are well-documented cases of buildings constructed in hazard-prone areas, river courses being illegally diverted and hills being cut away to make way for structures that do not have Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) approval.
A lot of the time, discussions on unplanned developments focus on the scores of squatter communities across this country and there is genuine cause for concern. Some of these squatter sites have, in recent years, expanded into environmentally sensitive areas, including forest reserves, increasing the potential for cataclysmic outcomes in the event of a natural disaster.
They are not the biggest problems, however, since there are several well-appointed residential and commercial properties that are just as illegal as the squatter communities.
The situation at Massahood Junction, which was brought into the national spotlight only after the pipeline ruptured last Sunday, is particularly alarming because it could so easily have been a full-scale disaster with tragic outcomes.
The temporary dislocation of residents and the effects of the fumes from the oil and gas on their health pale in comparison to the bigger dangers lurking a few feet under their homes.
The affected residents and the family whose home sits atop the pipeline claimed to be unaware it was in service.
However, Heritage Petroleum officials have countered that the family was repeatedly contacted last year and warned to stop construction over the pipeline. Apart from cease-and-desist notices, there were warning signs over the pipeline right-of-way clearly stating: “Please avoid these areas, as oil and gas exposure is dangerous and poses a real risk to people and property.”
The spill that occurred, as distressing as it was for those affected, was preventable. However, Heritage was unable to carry out routine checks and maintenance of the pipeline due to the structure built over it.
Now that a potentially dangerous situation has been exposed, once again putting the focus on this country’s unplanned development problem, all of the relevant state agencies need to take decisive action against these illicit activities.
It might also be time for state-owned Heritage to undertake a comprehensive audit of its pipeline infrastructure to identify all unauthorised structures encroaching on live lines and take the necessary action.
Also needed is a review of the role and functions of the TCPD, the agency responsible for the administration, planning and regulating of land use. For years, the TCPD has appeared almost powerless to carry out its mandate due to manpower shortages and other challenges.
The Office of the Commissioner of State Lands also needs to come under more scrutiny.
All these entities have been falling short of their critical roles in regulating land use in T&T, leading to widespread land abuse. They need to be called to account.