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Soot and our collective conscience (1), By Dakuku Peterside

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As you read this column, there is a high probability that there is at least a 500 percent increase in number of persons who are suffering from respiratory-related ailments in Rivers and Bayelsa states compared to 2014-2016 rates. An estimated 500,000 persons have their immune system compromised and exposed to the extreme of the prevalent viral infection, and another unconfirmed number of persons suffering from severe kidney, liver, and mental problems. There is most likely a rapid increase in cancer-related cases. In addition to this sad state of health is a 30 percent spike in morbidity and mortality rates in Rivers and Bayelsa states since 2016. This are the findings of the Prof. Precious Ede-led Technical Committee empanelled by Rivers State Government which did a comparative investigation on impact of soot pollution 18 months before August 2016 and 18 months after August 2016 when the problem became noticeable.

This picture reflects what the more significant population of people resident in Rivers and parts of Bayelsa states pass through daily due to the environmental challenge of soot. The soot, also known scientifically as black carbon, is a term for ultra-fine particles, PM 2.5, produced by incomplete hydrocarbon combustion. It is the stuff that makes soot dark, an unwanted by-product of burning diesel fuel in vehicles, biomass in stoves for cooking and heating, coal in small industrial operations and agricultural waste in post-harvest fields.

The primary sources of soot in Nigeria include Illegal refineries, gas flares, petrochemical industries, and legitimate refineries, burning of fuels like diesel, petrol used in transport and electricity generators, the burning of vehicle tyres, burning of oil spills by incompetent contractors, burning of sundry wastes, and bush burning. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes it as one of the deadliest forms of air pollution.

A recent investigation, reported by The Guardian, revealed that artisanal refining, which is the prime cause of soot pollution, is occurring in 14 of the 23 council areas of Rivers State. The activities of the refiners are said to be causing incomplete combustion of crude, which now releases carbon monoxide, sulphur into the air. A few years ago, Port Harcourt was rated the worst polluted city globally with an air index of 188, followed by Beijing, China, which ranked 182, and Delhi, India at 181.

Following an outcry of citizens facing severe breathing difficulties, the Rivers State Ministry of Environment set up a scientific investigation team of 20 experts from various inter-disciplinary and relevant fields. The report revealed that illegal bunkering and gas flaring are two significant sources of soot in the state, and about 22,077 persons have suffered from respiratory-related ailments in the four years (2016- 2020). The predictions by many health professionals are that if nothing is done urgently to stop the soot, many residents might experience chronic respiratory diseases, heart problems, suffer cancerous and non-cancerous conditions and increase in mortality rate.

This is becoming real as some persons have left the city, who have found it challenging breathing while in Port Harcourt. Many people who live in Rivers State and neighbouring Bayelsa will most likely succumb to COVID-19 because of the compromised respiratory system caused by soot pollution. Studies have found a strong link between municipal soot or air pollution and Covid-19 cases.

Besides the local environmental and health issues, Black carbon (soot) fuels global warming in two ways. One, black carbon heats up when exposed to sunlight. Two, like most dark substances, it absorbs rather than reflects light. When black carbon falls to the ground, usually after a few days, the Earth’s surface is left darker, reducing the planet’s reflectivity. This traps far more heat per unit mass than carbon dioxide, making it the second-biggest contributor to global warming.

This deadly air pollution came to light in 2016 when the skyline in several parts of the PH city was covered with dark particulate matter. The state government set up a committee that produced a report with the central recommendation to set up modular refineries to solve the problem of soot. However, lack of political will by the state administration, failure by the Federal Government and relevant federal agencies, and the international health and environmental organisations to implement the report or swiftly initiate moves to tackle the air plague or put in place regulations that will reduce it has made the challenge of soot to linger.

A cursory review of the soot problems will reveal why an urgent and focused synergistic approach is needed to tackle this social, scientific, economic, health and environmental challenge that poses a significant threat. I make bold to say that the effect of soot combined with the Covid-19 pandemic poses an existential threat to all residents of Rivers State.

There is the temptation to think that this environmental pollution challenge of ‘soot’ is a problem for residents of Rivers State and neighbouring Bayelsa. Science has proven otherwise. Environmental challenges in any part of the world, as you have in Rivers State,are intertwined, and interlinked with the rest of Nigeria and the world. The problem of soot reoccurring in Rivers State in the past 4-5 years is a problem for all Nigerians and the global community. An environmental issue in one part of the globe contributes to environmental pressure in other regions. Specifically, air pollution linked to carbon processing contributes to global warming, ozone layer depletion, acid rain pollution and ocean acidification.

The problem of soot prevalent in Port Harcourt should be of interest to all Nigerians and the global community. The spate of environmental pollution nationwide, which no one takes full responsibility to tackle, is expressed in Rivers State. The neglect of Rivers State soot by the government at all levels and the international community sends a strong message that these state, national, and supranational agencies seem to no longer care about the lives of six million Nigerians who daily face the threat of extermination.

Being inundated with petitions for over five years, the relevant Federal Government agencies have failed to rise to the responsibility of discharging their statutory roles, which means our government seems to no longer prioritise citizens’ health. In every sense, the problem of soot in Rivers State and Bayelsa State is a national problem denting our collective conscience. A state and federal government that ignores the threat of extermination of 6-10million of its citizens cannot be said to have the welfare of its citizens at heart.

The Rivers State Government, which has a moral responsibility to protect the people’s lives in its jurisdiction, has done little or nothing tangible to mitigate this problem. The soot report completed in the last three years has been gathering dust at the Government House, and none of the recommendations has been adequately implemented. Even the state government’s actions are inimical to any tangible progress in protecting the environment since it neglects or jettisons environmental impact assessment for some of the projects carried out in the state to reduce pollution.

By commission or omission, the state government, the security agencies and other regulatory bodies have allowed the illegal refining activities to carry on unabated. Even citizens know where unlawful petroleum refining activities occur and where the products are bought and sold. It is an open secret, and the government at all levels have not done much to cut off the supply side of the illegal economic activity.

The state government severally touted the establishment of modular refineries in 2021 as the panacea to the soot problem. It claimed that “the modular refinery is the main thing to curb it (soot}”. As the wave of soot occurrence escalates, the air quality index in the state worsens. Amidst public outcry, the state government is aloof and indifferent even when there is a degradation of the environment and danger to the health of residents. Paying lip service to this significant problem is a folly taken too far. Lives are at stake, and the state government must do something now.

There are several federal agencies, such as the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Nigeria Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NRC) as well as the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESRA), saddled with the responsibility of regulating the environmental aspect of petroleum value chain in Nigeria. These agencies are yet to wake up to the reality of tackling this menace of illegal mining and refining of oil in Rivers State. The abdication of responsibility of combating this menace of soot by both the respective environmental and security agencies can be equated to ecological terrorism.

I must acknowledge that Illegal mining and refining of petroleum products seem to be the mainstay of economic activities in some villages and towns, and it provides income and is a source of livelihood to many in these areas. Inadvertently, one can argue that these illegal activities have helped to stem the restiveness of the youths in these communities where these illegal activities are going on.

However, I must say that we cannot solve illegality with illegality. The government should provide enabling environment for legitimate economic activities in these communities instead of using indifference to criminal activities of illegal refining of petroleum to placate angry and unemployed youths of this area. It is counter-intuitive to do that, given that the little economic gains from these illegal activities will be far outweighed by the soot’s damaging impact and health implications.

Irked by the surging menace of soot, residents of Port Harcourt had taken specific actions to draw the government’s attention — they had mobilised themselves, staged a peaceful protest, and launched a campaign on social media platforms to raise the alarm continually. They used radio and television to mobilise and inspire actions by the government and relevant stakeholders. In a determined spirit of bringing the menace to an end, a civil society group, the Extra Step Initiative (ESI), in August 2019, sued the Federal Government for continuous pollution of the environment in the state.

The ESI carried out further studies and compiled a petition of about 300 pages, sent it to the United Nations, and copied the World Health Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and all the organs concerned and leaders of the world. The British Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, acknowledged receipt of the report, but Britain has done nothing about the soot to date.

I note with utmost dismay that a joint mission by the UN/UNEP and WHO has investigated the soot and met with affected groups in Port Harcourt. However, nothing came out of it, and neither has any meaningful actions emanated from these organisations to improve the air quality in Rivers State.

In conclusion, the skies of Rivers State are often covered with thick dark clouds, and the soot particles are seen dropping on cars, clothes, houses, and markets. This anomaly has significant health and economic implications and must be dealt with now. Countries often face dilemma promoting unfettered economic growth and the resulting public and environmental welfare. We must not play politics with this because of the enormous negative consequences that it portends.

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