•Port Harcourt residents panic as experts warn black carbon can poison rain, drinking water, plants and food
• Wike: We have no control over the sources of soot
By Egufe Yafugborhi, Port Harcourt
ONCE upon a time, unending invasion of Port- Harcourt by criminal gangs and cult groups turned the Rivers State capital into a dreadful place.
Last week, however, the fear was no longer the fear of being caught in crossfire of cult wars, neither was it of being abducted by kidnappers or killed by assassins. The residents’ cry was, ‘Save us from strange soot’. The cry came two years after consistent exposure to indiscriminate emissions of black amorphous carbon from industrial activities in the city.
Stakeholders agree that the soot hanging permanently in the air may be some gas of mass destruction gradually killing residents but the effect may not manifest until several years to come. Painfully, as always with developments concerning Rivers State in recent times, the politicisation of the soot issue may not bring solution quickly.
Industry regulator, expert confirm growing fear
Before residents under the aegis of “Stop the Soot” organised a rally in Port-Harcourt penultimate Thursday, industry regulator, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, had, three days earlier, confirmed the growing fear about the continued presence of the soot in the air.
NOSDRA Director General, Sir Peter Idabor, during a visit to Port Harcourt, to “Activate the 2018 National Oil Spill Contingency Plan & Drills”, had said, “I knew I must be confronted with this issue as I was coming” when Sunday Vanguard asked a question during a press briefing.
“The soot is an emergency. Our lives are really at risk, children are the most vulnerable as it sits in the lungs. So amorphous, experts have measured its particle size as 2.5 microns, seen only through high-powered microscopic lens. So it can’t be prevented from entering homes and offices even with windows sealed”, Idabor said
“As people inhale it, after a time, it becomes an irritant. The individual starts coughing. After persistent cough, a wound is created inside the lungs. This can become cancer, dreadfully, of the lungs. It can spread to liver and other vital organs. Such is the drive to death this soot leads”.
Medical expert, Dr. Ebitumi Kuruba, echoed Idabor’s position when he said, “The danger is that when this soot goes up in the air, it mixes with the clouds and comes down as rain. So the rain coming down now is poison. This would go into the ground, affect the source of the water we drink, the plants we grow and the food we eat”.
Hydrocarbon emissions from oil operations have always been environmental concerns since the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta, but the discomforting soot presently being experienced, Idabor explained, is a product of fumes from the activities of oil thieves and illegal oil refineries, aka ‘Kpo Fire’, indiscriminate burning of tyres and asphalt heating among other environmentally unhealthy businesses.
“In Port Harcourt, there are over 100 abattoirs and many of these use rubber tyres to roast meat. Yet others burn tyres to extract copper wires. The heating of asphalt (used for roads) and burning of stolen petroleum products by security agencies who set ablaze frightening volume of stolen oil or illegally cooked diesel in large boats or tankers as well the machinery of the ‘Kpo Fires’ caught in the act”.
Penultimate Thursday, residents, under the aegis of Stop-the-Soot Campaign and Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, marched through the streets of the Rivers State capital during which they visited the state House of Assembly and the Government House.
Tunde Bello, leading the protesters, said in a 12-point protest letter, “Concerned citizens want the state government to prioritise environment and do supplementary budget for the ministry of environment because of the ravaging soot. We want the state to conduct environmental audit of all those communities hosting oil operations.
“We want the Rivers government to act and become reservoir of environmental data for the state. We want Wike’s government to compel local governments to implement sanitation laws in their domains, make the local governments the channel their security votes to monitor the environment.
“We want street-by-street health campaigns and awareness on environmental health. We want Wike’s government to lead a bi-partisan campaign on behalf of the state and its citizens, cause the state and national assemblies to retool rules governing the environment and instigate expedited action on aspects of the Petroleum Industry Bill bordering on the environment.
“As a matter of urgency, we want the state government to provide daily air quality leanings to citizens as oil companies are doing for their staff. We want the state to collaborate with the Nigerian Medical Association to compile and make public the health status of the citizens and prevalent causes of deaths.”
Wike to sue FG, IOCs
Governor Nyeson Wike, who acknowledged citizens’ right to protest the soot, maintained that targeting the state government to vent the grievances was misplaced, stressing that the real anger should be vented on the Federal Government which, he said, his administration was set to sue.
“I have directed Rivers Attorney General to brief an environmental lawyer to sue the FG and the IOCs over the issue of soot”, he told a United Nations, UN, fact finding team which visited him on account of the soot.
He told the protesters, “Rivers State government has done all it I supposed to do, including advocacy and enlightenment campaigns, with no action from the FG. Help us demonstrate against the FG and we will be happy. We have no control over the sources of soot.
“Do I go to shut down the refinery? Will they not say it is economic sabotage? Do I even have the security? Do I control the police or the army to go and stop oil production at the refinery?
We must situate cause of the soot and the fact that FG has decided to make sure that a greater percentage of the state dies.”
“We have called on security agencies to find more refined ways of destroying illegal refineries. We have informed the National Council on the Environment, the military and all federal regulatory agencies, but they are not interested in intervening.”
He further appealed, “We want the international community to come to our aid and pressure the FG not to politicise environmental issues. All the FG is doing is to chase shadows, organise people to protest. Until they stop politicizing very serious issues and focus on governance, we will head nowhere.”
Osibanjo encourages synergy
Meanwhile, NOSDRA boss, Idabor, has revealed that the Ministry of Environment has scheduled a one-day retreat to address the associated challenges with the soot. Agencies under the ministry, Rivers government, oil companies and members of the armed forces, special task force and other stakeholders would attend the retreat.
“We have been having series of stakeholders meeting. We had a committee set up by the Vice President with the Chief of Naval Staff, the Joint Taskforce and others on Harmonised Standard Operating Procedures for dealing with recovered stolen crude or illegally refined products”, he said. “We said rather destroy it and aggravate pollution of the environment, retire stolen crude back to the refineries or other appropriate authorities. But the security people too have doubts about who to trust with such impounded or recovered products. They fear that when they return such products it could find its way back to the market. The Port Harcourt retreat would again look at the big picture.”
The NOSDRA boss cautioned residents to “use nose masks to, as palliative, reduce the impact of the soot on their health.”
PDP, APC bicker
In a related development, the soot campaign degenerated to political rivalry between Rivers ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, and opposition All Progressives Congress, APC, with the latter faulting Wike on the position that grievances should be targeted against FG and not his administration.
Publicity Secretary of Rivers APC, Chris Finebone, said, “Gov Wike was being disingenuous with that statement. We are not surprised he made such a mendacious statement. Environment is on the residual list in the Nigerian Constitution, hence, the inability of the Nigerian parliament to legislate on matters concerning the environment.
“Despite the setting up of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) by the FG, states and local governments reserve the right to or not to set up State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) and Local Government Emergency Management (LEMA) respectively. And Rivers State does not have SEMA.
“It would have made sense if the governor listed actions the state government has undertaken concerning arresting the dangerous soot rather than claim that his government has done the needful. The statement is mere facade to cover up the ineptitude of Wike’s government in tackling this challenge. The state government has done absolutely nothing in that regard.”
Organising Secretary of the PDP, Fyneman Ohaka, countered.
“Wike was very right in his statement. What is causing soot is activities of oil companies licensed to operate in the state by FG. Do they want the state to use its allocation to fight what they caused?”, Ohaka said.
“Gas as flaring is not within jurisdiction of the state and money made from oil goes into FG purse, so it is the FG’s primary responsibility to make policies to stop this soot. APC is myopic for saying the state should be responsible. FG is polluting our state and should find a solution to it. They stop the soot.”