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10 Years After, Soot Still Occupies The Air Of Rivers State, By Odimegwu Onwumere

Jun 17, 2023


Everyone had become enraged by December of that year when it became unbearable, and they began discussing it: something others argued started by the end of 2015. Some said it was in 2011.

“The frightening thing about the soot is that it has been going on for years. It was previously invisible, but it is now visible. We have lived with environmental destruction, and although we are aware that the air is polluted, the effects are becoming more alarming,” Bieye Briggs, a doctor and environmental activist based in Port Harcourt, stated.

In Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, and its surrounding areas, the thick black smoke that rendered the air gloomy almost daily was a common sight and hazy as early as 7 a.m.

Residents wake up to these harmful hydrocarbon emissions hanging in the air for hours from nearby creeks and waterways. Some analysts said that it would be easy for a visitor to conclude that heavy rain was coming, said an observer.

But for residents who have grown accustomed to the situation, it was a sad reminder of a persistent environmental issue.

To address the environmental issue, the campaign slogan – #Stopthesoot was fad by 2015. The authorities distributed a press release from the Ministry of Environment in December 2016.

In 2017, the organizer of Strategy Shapers, a metro innovation association that gives youngsters the information, abilities, and devices they need to draw in with public arrangement, Ebenezar Wikina, was disappointed with the smoke in Port Harcourt and its encompassing regions.

He challenged the handling of the situation, despite how residents saw the soot on the rooftops, vehicles, garments and different things in October 2016, but didn’t challenge it.

According to Dr Briggs, “Most people living in the affected communities know that soot is bad, but just how worse things can get is what is unknown to them.”

The Port Harcourt Overall Shapers chose to call for higher powers as of now because not much was done to manage the staggering buildup.

“On Change.org, we started a petition with close to 300 signatures. By writing to inform the UN Environment of the issues, we went one step further,” said Wikina, adding that “To be fair to the government, it was observed that the then Governor Nyesom Wike established a special taskforce in response to the cries of Rivers State residents (both on and off social media), shut down a few suspected illegal refineries quickly, and investigated industrial practices in the state.”

The residents had no idea what it meant for the clean air to be polluted by soot. According to Briggs, “Soot-related illnesses like birth defects, cancerous growths, miscarriages, and irritations of the eye, nose, throat, and skin are killing Nigerians in Port Harcourt on a daily basis.”

In the following years, checks showed that people’s clothes were stained with soot. The roads were canvassed in ash. Soot covered the bedsheets of residents as well.

“You’re cleaning your face with a cloth and everything is dark. You’re attempting to clean your vehicle and everything is dark. Or, if you look at your feet, it’s pitch black,” said environmental activist Saatah Nubari in Port Harcourt.

According to Wikina, “it’s had a wide range of impact on many things.” Pundits said that pollution plumes are not uncommon in the region. Numerous oil refineries can be found in close proximity to the country’s oil-producing Niger Delta, where Rivers state is.

Because it was difficult to breathe clean air, a joint UN and WHO investigation team met with affected groups in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s fifth largest city after Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, and Kaduna.

They were stunned to find out that the severity of the soot was intense that even when the doors and windows were shut, homes were smoky, and white handkerchiefs quickly turned black.

“The sediment can enter the lungs and circulatory system effectively and as recorded by the US’s Natural Security Organization (EPA), it was one of the deadliest types of air contamination,” said information.

This persisted even after the state government established a committee investigating the situation. In many of the nearby committees, it was found that more than 50 unlawful refinery facilities were in activity.

Indeed, even the closing down of organizations recognized as wellsprings of sediment, incorporating power plants in the state’s Ikwere and Obio/Akpor regions didn’t help.

Within a week, the then-Gov. Wike announced that 19 people were wanted on suspicion of operating illegal crude oil refining facilities in the state. Yet, the intended outcomes were not achieved through these efforts.

Investigations revealed that pipeline vandals, illegal refineries, and agents who transported the oil in boats along the coast from neighboring Benin and Togo to Nigeria were all part of the chain.

It was estimated that bunkering resulted in the loss of 150,000 barrels of oil daily. In a sign of official complicity with the trade, the fuel passes unnoticed through road checkpoints and waterways manned by police and military personnel.

“In 2022, Nigeria was assessed to lose between N30 trillion to N60 trillion yearly to oil burglary and unlawful refining. Although the loss of revenue caused by oil theft is troubling for a nation with weak finances, it pales in comparison to the deadly diseases that are introduced into the water and air of Port Harcourt as a result of the pollution.

“Over the past seven years, uncontrolled exposure to impure carbon particles emitted by incomplete fossil fuel burning and other indiscriminate oil exploration activities has put the well-being of residents in the most populous South-South city at risk,” contained in Call for Action against Black Soot in Port Harcourt.

The special group’s report from 2019 showed that approximately 22,077 people had respiratory-related illnesses in the last five years. Dr. Dasetima Altraide, a consultant dermatologist at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, was one of the 20 members of the group.

Dr. Altraide was said to have conducted investigational studies into the airborne particulate (soot) in Port Harcourt. The report stated that illegal bunkering and gas flaring are two major sources of soot in the state.

“The report linked the soot scourge to illegal bunkering and gas flaring,” the media reported, adding, “To safeguard themselves, lawmakers in the state are purportedly utilizing M95, a nose cover that channels the air and has a life expectancy of 30 days.

“The majority of residents are left in the dark because they cannot afford it. In large numbers, these residents have left the city.”

Many people died or nearly lost their lives as residents covered their noses in fear of inhaling the hazardous smoke. On the other hand, Sandra Hart nearly passed away in October 2021 due to a prolonged asthma attack that she believed was brought on by soot.

As experts predicted, respiratory issues are one of the most common health issues that some residents face.

Select journalists later paid visits to the Model Primary Healthcare Centre at Okija Street, Mile One Diobu, Port Harcourt, the Health Care Centre at Rumodumanya and Rumosi, the Rivers State Teaching Hospital, the Bodo General Hospital, and the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, all of which are located in Port Harcourt.

“These visits revealed that a significant number of the patients’ medical records contain information about issues related to the respiratory system,” their report revealed.

Ms. Hart recalled that her chest and ribs were blocked. “At the point when we got to the medical clinic, I was at that point breathing extremely high,” she recalled.

The clampdown on illegal oil refineries in Rivers State was welcomed by campaigners alarmed at the mounting medical toll on those living there. But will it have a lasting impact? asked opinion leaders.

In a photograph taken while a 24-year-old man was being operated on by Iboroma Aku Shed in Port Harcourt, several clusters of thick black soot clasp to the lungs by 2021, stated research.

According to reports, his chest was opened by doctors to repair a hole in his diaphragm; however, during the procedure, they discovered that his lungs were charred.

Shed stated, “We were shocked to see these black deposits spread everywhere when we saw his lungs. This is an individual who doesn’t have a past filled with smoking, who is extremely youthful. However, he lives along Rivers State’s coast, where illegal oil refining is carried out.”

Checks revealed that the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies household and outdoor air pollution as major contributors to the seven million premature deaths that occur annually worldwide, with developing nations like Nigeria accounting for more than half of these deaths.

Dr Eugene, Pioneer behind The Additional Step Drive, however, said, “Following 60 years of Rivers State being the center point of the hydrocarbon business and with the harming exercises of the non-state entertainers, the Rivers State Government with outside help should lead the charge to review the harm to our vegetation especially the respiratory strength of the occupants of Port Harcourt and other host networks from the exercises of lawful and unlawful refining of unrefined petroleum in order to check the pace of tumors and renal disappointment among kids, impoverished individuals and pregnant ladies.

“Additionally, we are of the opinion that the United Nations Ogoni Clean Up report is out of date and should be updated by the Federal Government to take into account the most recent developments, which a report written ten years ago does not take into account.”

For Steve Babaeko, founder and CEO of X3M Ideas, “Port Harcourt is very jarring because we need to be very clear on the true impact of the damage soot causes and how the crisis is slowly killing residents, in a way that is candid and easy for everyone to understand.”

Odimegwu Onwumere is Director, Advocacy Network on Religious and Cultural Coexistence (ANORACC). He can be reached via: apoet_25@yahoo.com