For decades, the people of Niger Delta have had to put up with varying shades of maladies befalling them on account of oil exploration activities going on in their domain.
Besides the health challenges that have imperiled residents of the area, a lot of environmental and social problems have also cropped up and ultimately worsening the quality of life in the zone.
For instance, farmlands have been destroyed by massive oil spills, sources of drinking water contaminated with toxic substances and fishing resources depleted in ways never seen or heard before. All these conditions have succeeded in pitching the youths against the Federal Government and international oil companies.
As if these woes were not enough, the emergence of black soot on the skylines of Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State and its environs in the last two years or thereabouts, has only succeeded in making a bad case worse for residents.
Now, the troubled residents of the city wake up most mornings to find layers of black dusty substances covering surfaces in their neighbourhood, including rooftops, car roofs, home floors, clothes and even utensils.
When it first appeared, the hydrocarbon substances left many wondering about its source. This development prompted the state government to, among other things, set up the Task Force on Black Soot, which swiftly closed down three Chinese companies, accused of contravening safety practices, and operating machines that emit high degrees of hydrocarbon, which return to the earth as soot rain.
According to health experts, black soot is linked to hydrocarbons causing cancer and other respiratory problems. Consequently, the over six million people resident in the state are at a risk of coming down with life-threatening ailments, if the situation is not arrested in good time.
As time went by, residents and civil society groups protested government’s apparent lack of serious action in stemming the looming danger, especially as the situation failed to improve even after the three industries were shut.
For instance, penultimate week, civil society groups led residents of the state in a protest walk against air pollution in the state capital.
They marched to the Government House, Port Harcourt, the Rivers State House of Assembly, and thereafter to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR).
The protesters apart from singing, bore placards, which spoke volumes of the burden in their hearts They also symbolically covered their nostrils with masks.
The large banner, which inscriptions read, “Rivers people deserve the right to clean and healthy environment,” and “Kick out soot now,” some of the placards read, “stop the soot, my life matters,” “Federal Government it is time to act” and “We want clean air, not black soot.”
Before the protest got underway, one of the participating CSO, “We The People” took to its Twitter handle saying, “It is time to take action against the soot.”
“Join us to call global attention to the poisoning of millions of Port Harcourt residents. We are taking the protection of our health and environment into our own hands!
“No human being should have to live with this level of pollution. Nobody should breathe this soot. But the people of Port Harcourt have no choice. Day in, day out, they live in, they breathe, drink and get poisoned by the soot. It is unjust, it is a death sentence.”
At every single opportunity that he has, Governor Nyesom Wike has lashed out at the Federal Government accusing it and its agencies for being responsible for the air pollution in the state.
While addressing a visiting delegation from the United Nations in Port Harcourt, Wike said, “The Rivers State government does not own companies that refine crude. We have made representations to the Federal Government and her agencies on the issue of soot, to no avail. We have called on the security agencies to find more refined ways of destroying the illegal refineries; we have informed the National Council of Environment, the military and all federal regulatory agencies, but they are not interested in intervening,” the governor said.
Wike, who claimed that the “Federal Government wants to eliminate a greater percentage of the state’s population, further alleged that the same Federal Government turned around to organise people to protest, and threatened to sue the government.
“The Federal Government is using the soot as a political strategy, not knowing that it will fail woefully,” he told his guests.
Last Tuesday, Wike during a media chat with journalists in Port Harcourt, again assured residents of the state has not gone to bed while black soot is ravaging the state.
He disclosed that the state has signed a pact with a private investor to build a recycling plant, where all seized condemned tyres would be recycled, adding that the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), and Total Exploration and Production Nigeria, (TEPNG), have agreed to bring experts that would reduce the soot.
The governor, who pointed out that reducing the soot is a gradual process and not something that could be achieved in six months time, for the umpteenth time expressed regret that the issue is being politicised, saying, “the soot is not for the All Progressive Congress or the Peoples Democratic Party, it is something that affects everyone. If you come to my room, you will see everywhere is dark and I am inhaling it. I am not happy; but it is affecting me also.”
He said the state government is constrained because it is not in charge of security agencies whose activities, according to him, constitute most of the soot.
“What we can do we will do, but if we are in charge of security, we would have done our best to stop the soot, security agencies are the causes of the soot. So, the Federal Government and NNPC should look for a way to refine the illegal crude instead of setting them ablaze.”
The state Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya, is in sync with her principal on this, maintaining that it is imperative for federal security agencies to devise better ways of doing away with recovered crude.
On its part, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) is also calling on the Federal Government to stop illegal refineries that are helping to worsen the scenario.
PENGASSAN through its spokesman, Fortune Obi, recently lamented that issues pertaining to the soot are not being addressed because most of the people affected are still performing their daily tasks, even though experts have confirmed the soot to be carcinogenic.
“The black soot settles on everything and finds its way into the corners of living rooms no matter how hard people try to stop it. Food items in Port Harcourt markets are as well not spared from getting mixed with this deadly soot that is ever-present everywhere,” he stated.
He added that PENGASSAN, in collaboration with other concerned bodies and citizens have severally created awareness to call the attention of the government to act swiftly and put an end to whatever is the source of this killer soot.
“Majority believe that the source of this soot is due to “incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, as well as, asphalt processing, burning of barges/vessels used for oil bunkering and illegal artisanal refinery operations” in some parts of the state.
“There is a need for collaboration among all stakeholders to end this environmental hazard. We, therefore, call on the state and the Federal Government to put a strategic action in place to finally address this black soot and put an end to whatever is the source.
“This is not the time to play politics with people’s lives. The Federal and state government, security agencies, as well as, all agencies in charge of environment including National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and its Rivers State counterpart, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSRDA), Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and other agencies handling related issues should toe a defined and safe path in handling illegal oil vessels as well as the criminal act of illegal refining of crude oil that are said to be the key reason of this menace.
“The governments should also involve locals and possibly constitute them into environmental councils to monitor their areas for any possible illegal refining of the crude and such other dangerous acts that are inimical to human existence.”
But the Nigerian Army has dismissed the assertion that military activities were responsible for the killer soot.
Spokesperson of the Six Division of the Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, Aminu Iliyasu, told The Guardian, that black soot were particularly generated in locations, where illegal refining of crude are taking place. “If as it is alleged that the activities of the military are responsible for the black soot, since we started shutting down illegal oil sites, the soot would have reduced, but that is not the case. For instance, if we destroy five sites, the next day, the bunkerers will set up 10 more sites. So long as they are still producing, there will still be black soot. It is the ‘Kpo fire’ that produces the soot.”
While maintaining that it was everyone’s responsibility work towards stopping the soot, he alleged that community leaders know those that are into the illegal oil business. He charged them to arrest them and hand them out to the authorities, or report them to appropriate quarters.
Iliyasu explained that “due to the effects and dangers that illegal crude portends, the NNPC may not welcome it,” but the Director General of National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Peter Idabor, insists that it is better to return stolen crude to refineries than setting same ablaze by the security agencies.
The NOSDRA boss who spoke in Port Harcourt recently, disclosed that the Federal Government has set up a committee known as Harmonised Standard Operating Procedures to deal with stolen crude, which he reiterated is one of the major causes of the soot.
Idabor assured that a one-day summit organised by the Federal Ministry of Environment with relevant stakeholders would go a long way in address the black sooth menace.
The Minister of State for Environment, Ibrahim Jibril, who recently spoke at Terabor, Gokana Local Council of the state pointed out that the Federal Government has identified 11 sources that the soot were generated from in Port Harcourt.
In the meeting we just had, we have set up an inter-ministerial committee, a standing ad-hoc committee comprising ministries of environment, health, and local government and chieftaincy affairs,” the minister said, adding, “others to be involved are the federal ministries of health, environment, security agencies are all going to be involved so that together we put our heads and make sure that since we are aware of what was going on, we will now attack the issue from the bottom and make sure that the root cause is eliminated.”
But for a senior citizen in the state and Chairman, Joint National Committee of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN and the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), Chika Onuegbu, “this is not time to push blames around, especially when people are dying. Something must be done about it right away.”
Giving his impression of the soot, which has become a source of worry to many he said, “I have said that the black sooth menace in Rivers State is a genocide. For about two to three years, people have been breathing these substances and it appears that nothing is being done about it. My fear is that if nothing is being done, so long as people are living here, they might at some point begin to experience untimely deaths. Worse still is that there is no health facility in the state, or any part of Nigeria that can manage the emergency that the soot has unleashed on the people.
“You know that terminal illness during their gestation period do not show any sign, but in the face of it, people are currently having respiratory track infections and if nothing is done about it now, there will be untimely deaths. I still do not understand why the military seems not confident about returning stolen crude to the appropriate government agencies, as destroying the mineral further damages the environment. As a person, I think it is fit and proper for recovered products to be handed over to the right government agency. By so doing, it would be put to better use and the economy will be the ultimate gainer. We need to rise up, and fight for this to happen,” he said.