The Port Harcourt soot scourge

T HESE are not the best of times for residents of Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s fifth largest city after Lagos, Kano, Ibadan and Kaduna. Port Harcourt has a lot of oil and the Federal Government is exploring it, but so are violent non-state actors and economic desperadoes eager to line their pockets at the expense of human lives. And so the city’s residents are contending with a deadly foe: black soot.  For over two years, it has been difficult to breathe clean air in the city. White handkerchiefs turn black very quickly and homes are full of soot even when doors and windows are shut. The product of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, soot is the common name for a type of particle pollution called PM 2.5. It has the ability to penetrate the lungs and bloodstream easily and is in fact listed by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as one of the deadliest forms of air pollution.

Since November 2016 when residents of Port Harcourt suddenly discovered black soot covering everything from cars to houses, plants and clothes, it has been tales of woe. The soot is everywhere and there is death in the air: breathing, wiping one’s face with a handkerchief and even cooking are now risky endeavours. The last two years have been hellish for residents because the soot has refused to go away and is dispensing disease and death at will. And the situation is getting worse simply because the authorities have been unable to stop the illegal refiners of oil in their tracks. Unscrupulous security agencies reportedly aid the navigation of trucks laden with adulterated products. And a host of factors are compounding the scourge: the military, ignoring the cost to the environment, constantly sets illegally refined petroleum products ablaze, residents burn refuse and roast meat with tyres, and gas flaring is continuing at an alarming rate, putting residents of the metropolis at risk of various types of cancers. Port Harcourt, rated in 2018 as the worst polluted city in the world with an air index of 188, runs the risk of becoming Nigeria’s capital  of adverse respiratory, skin and reproductive conditions, chronic respiratory diseases, heart problems and cancer.

According to media reports, at the onset of the scourge, the state government set up a committee to investigate the situation. It subsequently shut down some companies identified as sources of soot, including power plants in Ikwere and Obio/Akpor areas of the state. In addition, it commenced the seizure of tyres. But these efforts failed to yield the expected results. As a matter of fact, the report of  the technical team it set up in 2019 indicated that about 22,077 persons had suffered from respiratory-related ailments in the last five years. The report linked the soot scourge to illegal bunkering and gas flaring. To protect themselves, politicians in the state are reportedly using M95, a nose mask that filters the air and has a lifespan of 30 days. The majority of residents who cannot afford it are left in the lurch. Many of such residents have fled the city in droves.

Worried by the scourge, the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, declared 19 persons wanted this week for allegedly operating illegal crude oil refining sites in the state. He also directed the state Head of Service to query a director in the Ministry of Energy, Mr. Temple Amakiri, and hand him over to the police for investigation and possible prosecution for allegedly abetting bunkering activities. According to the governor, his administration had resolved to close down all identified illegal crude oil refining sites in the state. These actions are in order. It is galling that even with the existence of state and federal ministries of environment and agencies such as the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESRA), Port Harcourt residents are dying slowly, and with no one to help them out. Working with the Federal Government, the Rivers State government must mobilise technical expertise and tackle the scourge head-on. It must battle the outlaws behind the scourge to a standstill.  Had its previous actions been enough, the problem would not have persisted for this long. The government must mobilise the people of the state and root out the perpetrators of environmental pollution in Port Harcourt.

On its part, the  Federal Government must shelve its rather diffident approach to the situation. According to the Minister of Environment, Dr. Mohammad Abubakar, “We are looking at a solution: creating modular refineries. We are looking at different options. I cannot tell you one particular thing that can stop this but we are looking at it critically.” The government should stop looking. It should act fast and save lives. It is certainly tragic that in spite of previous promises, gas flaring has persisted in the country, and accounts in large part for the situation in Port Harcourt. When will the government put an end to gas flaring, thereby saving lives and conserving gas for domestic use? It is time the Rivers State government and the Federal Government worked together and rescued Port Harcourt from pollution and degradation. It must ensure that the military stops the practice of burning down illegal refineries, and that the security agents aiding and abetting bunkering activities are brought to book. Port Harcourt residents deserve clean air.

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