By Egufe Yafugborhi
Not too long ago, frequent invasions of Rivers communities and mindless killings by cult terror groups and other criminal gangs evoked the common headline refrain of “Rivers of Blood” in many news reports. The state is currently in the news again, this time not for deaths related to violence but from exposure to emissions of a hazardous black amorphous carbon from unconfirmed industrial activities. With this, the protest refrain since the last two weeks has been: “Save Rivers from this soot of death”.
Stakeholders are in agreement that the soot is a cancerinogenuos chemical which is gradually killing the populace and could assume a mass destruction scale if not checked. Painfully, as always with developments concerning Rivers in recent times, the politicisation of issues arising from the soot menace continues to overwhelm concerted efforts at checking it.
Industry regulator, expert confirm growing fear: Before residents under various banners came up with the “Stop the Soot” rally in Port Harcourt last Thursday, industry regulator, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, had three days earlier confirmed the growing fear about continued presence of the fast-spreading soot.
NOSDRA Director General, Sir Peter Idabor, on a duty specific trip into Port Harcourt to “Activate 2018 National Oil Spill Contingency Plan & Drills” preempted thus: “I knew I must be confronted with this issue as I was coming” when Vanguard posed the question during his press briefing. “The soot is an emergency. Our lives are really at risk, children are the most vulnerable as it sits in the lungs. It’s 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.
“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. The wound becomes cancerous and spreads to the liver and other vital organs.”
Soot creates poisonous rain
A medical expert, Dr. Ebitumi Kuruba, warned thus: “The other danger is that this soot goes up in the air, mixes with the clouds and falls back as rain. So the rains coming down now is poison. This would go into the ground, affect the source of water we drink, the plants we grow and the food we eat.”
Hydrocarbon emissions from oil operations have always been environmental concerns since discovery of oil in the Niger Delta; but the discomforting soot presently being experienced, Idabor explained, is a product of fumes from activities of oil thieves and illegal oil refineries popularly dubbed ‘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 all contribute to the problem.
Citizens protest: Thursday, residents under the banners of Stop-the-Soot Campaign and Civil Liberty Organisations, CLO, marched the streets of Port Harcourt in a protest to the Rivers State House of Assembly and ended at the Government House.
Tunde Bello, leading the campaign, said in a 12-point protest letter that: “The 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 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 channel their security votes to monitor the environmental. 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 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 Nyesom Wike who acknowledged citizens’ right to protest the soot menace, however maintains that venting their grievances on the state government was misplaced. He stressed that the real anger should be vented on the Federal Government which, he said, his administration is 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 menace.
He charged the protesters thus: “Rivers State Government has done all it is supposed to do, including advocacy and enlightenment campaigns, with no action from the FG. Help us demonstrate against the FG and we will all be happy. We have no control over the sources of soot. Do I go to shutdown the refinery? Will they not say that 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 the security agencies to find more refined ways of destroying illegal refineries. We have informed the National Council of Environment, the military and all Federal Regulatory Agencies, but they are not interested in intervening. 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, organising people to protest. Until they stop politicizing very serious issues and focus on governance, we will head nowhere”.
Osibanjo encourages synergy
In the atmosphere of bickering, NOSDRA boss, Idabor has revealed that the Ministry of Environment, has scheduled a one-day retreat in Port Harcourt April 27 to address the associated challenges with the soot. Agencies under the ministry, Rivers Government, oil companies and members of the Armed Forces, special Taskforce 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.
“We said rather destroy it and aggravate pollution of the environment, retire stolen crude back to the refineries or other appropriate authorities.