By Ngozi Nwoke
Having been denied the right to fresh and healthy air for six years, residents of Rivers State can no longer bear the health hazards and environmental pollution caused by deadly soot, which degrades the environment with toxic carbon dust. The soot is noticeable everywhere, even as accusations and counter-accusations fly back and forth over who or what is responsible.
Daily Sun investigated how the situation has affected residents’ lifestyle and the health implications.
The soot was first noticed in parts of Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, and some neighbouring local government areas like Eleme, Oyigbo, Ikwere and Obio/Akpor towards the end of 2016. Residents of the areas began to complain of black dust or soot staining their clothes or settling on their parked cars overnight. The more the observations, the more the ‘black dust’ spread to other locations.
Unable to ascertain the cause, the Rivers State government, in 2017, set up a committee led by the then Commissioner for Environment, Dr. Roseline Konya, to look into the issue. It was the committee that later unraveled the likely source of the ‘soot,’ which had continued to increase in intensity as it spread to other areas.
However, before the state government committee made known its findings, speculations were rife about the cause, with some people blaming the Port Harcourt Refinery Company (PHRC) for it. Others blamed a Chinese manufacturing company, while some said it was caused by the indiscriminate burning of used tyres by scavengers and the unscrupulous activities of crude oil thieves who employed crude methods, notoriously referred to as ‘kpo fire’ in refining the stolen oil.
Other assumptions on the probable cause of the soot were the incessant burning of seized products as well as the illegal refineries by security agencies. But following further investigations and research by the state government committee, the most likely causes were narrowed down to illegal refining by crude oil thieves and the crude act of setting ablaze recovered crude and refining facilities of the illegal refinery operators.
The Konya-led committee also revealed as much when she, in another public reaction, stated that the state government had been advising security agencies to devise a better means of dealing with operators of illegal refineries to contain the spread of the soot.
During a meeting in 2018 with a delegation of the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), and officials of the Federal Ministry of Health in Port Harcourt, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, blamed the continuous spread of the soot on some agencies of the Federal Government like PHRC. But the refining company was not the only organization that Wike blamed. The Federal Government also got knocks for not taking action despite several representations by the state government.
Wike said: “It is obvious that the problem is not caused by the state. The problem is caused by Federal Government’s agencies. We do not refine crude oil; we do not own any company that does that. We do not control the security agencies that carry out a crude way of destroying illegal refineries at various areas.
“We have made attempts to bring the issue before the Federal Government. We have called the security agencies to adopt a more refined way of destroying illegal refineries so that it does not jeopardize the health of the people. If you go to Port Harcourt Refinery now, just practically go and see what is coming out there. I cannot shut down the refinery; if I do, they will say it is economic sabotage.”
Also, the chairman of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), South-South zone, Karl Uchegbu, had strongly indicted the Federal Government and its agencies for lack of action on the problem, stressing that the Federal Government should be held responsible for environmental degradation and the soot menace in Rivers State.
He said: “For all these years, the Port Harcourt metropolis, Obio/Akpor, Eleme and parts of Oyigbo LGA have had to endure the dangerous effects of the soot with the most affected being the waterfront areas of Port Harcourt and all the adjoining communities, extending even to Woji and beyond.
“Residents have had to cope with having a huge dose of soot on anything not properly covered or left in the open. Many residents of the most affected areas have resorted to wearing nose guards to reduce the amount of soot they breathe in.”
Being a by-product from the refining of crude oil, medical experts have warned of serious health problems arising for inhaling the soot. Already, there have been reports of increasing respiratory infections among children in the state. It is also apparent that the soot can contaminate water and food.
Health expert, Dr. Ihejirika Odogwu, of the Rivers State College of Health Science and Technology, Port Harcourt, blamed the persisting soot for the increasing number of respiratory infections in the state. He said many residents were at risk, if nothing was done urgently to address the challenge.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, we will have an alarming rate of cancers and the cancers will be in the form of respiratory cancers, lung cancers to liver cancers. In 10 to 15 years, we will likely be in trouble. Now the other issues we should remember with the soot is that this soot goes into the atmosphere, mixes with the air and falls back as rain. So, the rain falling down now is poisonous. This will go into the ground, affect the source of water we drink, affect the plants that we grow and the food we eat.
“Residents of Rivers State should be prepared to live with the environmental problem for some time, as government appears not ready to tackle the problem. What the government seems to be interested in is fact-finding, not solution. Both the federal and state governments have been engaged in buck-passing, rather than taking proactive measures to address the environmental issue. Aside from the setting up of the committee by the state government to ascertain the cause of the soot, nothing else has been forthcoming since then from it.”
Meanwhile, residents who expressed fear and displeasure over the unending soot and discomfort they experience said that government has abandoned them to suffer the adverse health effects caused by the soot.
Miss Ogadinma Nwoke, a resident in the state, disclosed that she cleans her house every three hours due to the heavy soot, and called on government for quick intervention.
She said, “This is a dangerous issue for us in Port Harcourt. We have suffered this issue for over four years and it looks like the government is not bothered about it. I learnt that it can cause cancer for us. My nose and ears are always stuffed with this black dust. It is that bad. We are suffering. We cannot breathe fresh air in Rivers State.”
Another resident, Patrick Ekong, noted that the soot caused the untimely death of his cousin when she suffocated from asthma after inhaling the black dust for three years of her stay in Port Harcourt.
“I am still counting my losses. My cousin died of asthma after she inhaled the deadly toxic dust. I am still nursing my loss. But it is unfortunate that the cause of my sister’s death is not still rectified and I cannot imagine how many residents have contracted one illness or the other due to this soot,” he said.
Dr. Kevin Ibiwari, a health expert and senior lecturer at the College of Medical Sciences, Rivers State University of Science and Technology, gave an insight into the matter. He said: “First thing is to remove politics from it. In our country, especially our state, everything is politics. So, this is not just the issue for the governor, this is a problem for all of us. I have always advocated that there is a need to form a committee of experts that will look at how to get the job done.”
Responding to the reports of residents alleging that government has not done enough or is doing nothing to curb the menace, the Rivers State Commissioner for Energy and Natural Resources, Dr. Peter Medee, said: “When people allege that the state government hasn’t done enough to curb the soot, they are only being unfair to the truth. When it comes to actions the ministry of environment and ministry of energy have taken towards putting a stop to the soot, the truth is that we cannot tackle it by one means. We are determined to tackle it through all possible means. Now, we must understand that the issue of oil bunkering is a major cause of the soot. When it comes to oil bunkering, it is like an epidemic because the impact and effect on the economy, health of the people and the environment of Rivers State is huge.
“Oil theft and oil bunkering have provided very serious devastation to the environment in Rivers State. We have reviewed our effort so far, where government has taken confrontation as the main action to stop oil bunkering also as a way of stopping the soot from prevailing. We are using the task force and other security agencies to stop those who indulge in oil theft and oil bunkering.
“Another approach to stopping the soot is to take away the market from these oil thieves and oil bunkers. If we take away the market from them, when they make efforts to steal the crude oil, take the effort to go and cook the oil and do not have people patronizing them in terms of buying the oil, they would no longer go back to the illegal business. I can assure you that the state government is determined to fight illegal oil bunkering to a standstill.
“So, we are determined to get into taking the market away from their operation and what we are trying to do is to consider both the upstream sector and the downstream sector.
“The next approach from the Federal Government is for them to look at the upstream sector, which is where we have been able to get license to build modular refineries and have mega private sector (players) to invest.
“Now, in the downstream sector, we are looking at a situation where the state can look at some mega filling stations, mega tank farms and see what we can do to compete.”