SOOT IN RIVERS STATE: IMPENDING HEALTH DISASTER BREWING AND THE NEED FOR GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION
Every nation has an abiding commitment to promote environmental justice which includes ensuring the people have access to clean air and limited exposure to dangerous chemicals and impurities in the atmosphere such as carbon particulate matter also known as soot as the case is in Rivers State. But in the case of Nigeria and Rivers State in particular, the state and federal governments have failed to meet that commitment in the past and even in the present. Recently, there has been increased public outcry to the rising level of soot in the state. While this is not new, it once again, has received little or no concrete attention from the state government.
Soot is a mass of impure carbon residue coming from oil exploratory activities in the oil-rich state, especially from gas flaring and illegal oil refineries, also known as artisanal refining. It also contains Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen dioxide, which cause acid rain when combined with moisture. This has left the state with a major public health and environment danger brewing.
The high atmospheric concentration of soot in the state is alarming. This was the pivot of the April 2018 popular #stopthesoot campaign in Port Harcourt organized by the civil society and other concerned organisation and widely attended by hundreds of citizens in Port Harcourt. The state government had responded by setting up a technical committee led by then state Commissioner for Environment, Professor Roseline Konya to implement the report submitted by the scientific committee. This scientific committee was earlier commissioned to investigate the causes and likely solutions to the environmental hazard. According to the committee, the most probable causes of the soot were discovered to be illegal refining by crude oil thieves and the distasteful act of torching seized crude and refinery facilities of illegal refinery operators by security officers. Other causes include the burning of old tyres, production activities at the fertilizer and petroleum refinery companies, meat roasting with used tyres, asphalt plants, and devious burning of refuse. Unfortunately, according to several investigations and reports, government officials, lawmakers, ex-militants, security personnel, including the military, are involved in the oil bunkering industry. Security guards are thought to be employed by oil bunkering alliances in order to carry out their criminal activities unimpeded.
Medical experts say Inhaling the soot, especially the tiny one of the range of 0.25 microns. penetrates deep into the lungs and can lead to serious health problems including acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children and old ones. The particulate matter can also lead to cancer as well as developmental disorders, heart attacks, strokes and even premature death. Speaking at the “Stop the Soot” Conference organized by Rotary International Port Harcourt, Dr. Dienye Briggs elaborated the effect of the soot on even unborn babies and how they immediately start to exhibit respiratory disorders immediately they are born, using his own child as a typical reference. He painted a gloomy picture for the resident of Port Harcourt when he declared that the lungs of a resident who has been inhaling the soot for five years now is darker and more inflamed than the that of an average smoker. Other health complications that are attributable to the soot according to research carried out at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, is the rise in infertility in men residing in Port Harcourt.
Two years after the inauguration of the technical committee and nothing concrete to show as a way of actionable plans except blame trading from the state governor; laying all the faults and responsibility on the Federal Government and her agencies. Repeated calls have been made to the state and the federal government to intervene, but this has received only cosmetic reactions that achieve nothing at elevating the situation which had been on for over five years. This is characteristic of the insensitiveness and inaction of the government.
There is now an awareness hashtags on social media generated and driven by health professionals and activists such as #EndTheSootProblemPH and #StopTheSoot used to draw the attention of the government to this issue as a matter of emergency. Signatures are being gathered and there’s the inevitability of a mass protest against palpable negligence and insincerity of the government. This renewed call must be met with action and speed from the government on a scale commensurate with the need to avoid setting Rivers State on a dangerous trajectory of catastrophic damage to public health and the environment. The social cost of soot on the human health, and on the environment is devastating
To tackle and bring an end to this environmental danger and it’s devastating health implications, fast and coordinated action is needed. To guarantee this, both the Rivers State Government and the federal government have the major obligation. Ending illicit refining in the state and taking on every organization engaged is one method to do this. Rather than looking for every occasion to blame the federal government, Gov. Nyesom Wike should show commitment and respond to this call and intervene in a timely manner to protect the people against this environmental health hazard that pose risks to the health of the people.
There should be routine check on illegal oil refining and monitoring of air quality in the state The government should muster the political will and articulate stringent policies and control measures to mitigate this public health nuisance rather than express deep concerns and make bogus promises in elaborately organized government functions. While this is done, cellular, rather than modular, refineries should be encouraged and supported to harness the resources and legitimize these illegal artisanal refineries through training and licensing. If properly done the over 40% component of the crude oil waisted in the coarse refining process could be turned into useful products that could enable these cellular refineries legally purchase their crude oil and pay tax to the government. This would also align with the net zero target which was extensively discussed during the last 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) which held in Glasgow this year. As other countries accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nigeria must not be left behind; government at the national and sub-national levels must show the political will to protect public health and the environment. The government must act now to put Nigeria on a sustainable climate pathway to protect Nigerians from harmful environmental cum health impacts of soot and environmental related challenges as part of the country’s climate solution.