BY TOMBARI SIBE
A dense smell rudely greets your nasal channel as you take your first step out the door in the morning. The unmistakable choking smell of a cocktail of diesel and kerosene, or some hydrocarbon product, permeates the air space. It feels quite dense, and triggers burden the otherwise simple biological process of respiration. The respiratory system overworks itself, in search of clean air for normal breathing. On the cars parked outside, are black particles that settled unapologetically. Tired and too heavy for the wind, they settled on anything on their path after a long trip from their production point; perhaps from plants in the organized hydrocarbon industry or the many artisanal refining plants in the mangrove creeks of the state. This is not a diesel storage facility or the generator house; this is a regular residence in Port Harcourt.
The black particles, also known as particulate matter (PM) or soot is not restricted to the outdoors. They’ve forced their way through the crevices on the doors, windows and the vents of the air conditioner, and colonized the entire airspace. The air is so dense with soot, that it could be sliced with a knife. Our nostrils are as dark and charred like the vents of an old kerosene lamp. And when you breathe, especially early in the morning, the air smells like an unkempt automobile workshop. When you walk around the house, you leave a trail of your footprints, embossed on the thin film of soot on the floor.
It all started over a year ago; residents in Port Harcourt began noticing black particles that settled on anything exposed. It didn’t spare any exposed surfaces; floors, cars, food items in the market, clothes hanging, etc. The city was saturated with these strange black droppings, which was later identified as soot. More than a year after and the problem has worsened. Today, you need to mop the floor at least twice a day to keep it clean.
Soot is produced as a result of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon. Saturated particulate matter (SPM) is classified in size, either as PM10 (Particles measuring up to 10 microns, described as coarse particles) and PM2.5 (Particles measuring up to 2.5 microns, described as fine articles). While both can produce harmful effects when they penetrate the lungs, PM2.5 poses the greater health threat. PM10 would most likely end up in the trachea, while PM2.5 would most likely travel all the way through the nostrils to the alveoli. The World Health Organization has set the guidelines for both categories as:
10 µg/m3 annual mean
25 µg/m3 24-hour mean
20 µg/m3 annual mean
50 µg/m3 24-hour mean
According to reports, preliminary studies in Port Harcourt had suggested the thresholds were far exceeded, at some point. Despite this potential public health threat, not much has been done by the authorities in the last one year. The Rivers state government has repeatedly pointed fingers at the uncontrolled destruction of artisanal refineries by the military. They have also stepped up consultations with the other stakeholders in the organized private sector, to work out ways of stopping this. However, a lot more is desired from them, especially in the area of public health, advocacy and leadership. The state ministry of environment needs to be further strengthened both in capacity and in legislation. There seem to be a consensus that they can indeed do more.
The federal government has turned a blind eye or so it seems. The apparatus of state is controlled by them, yet they have failed to take a decisive action. As rightly accused by the Rivers state government, there are videos of uncontrolled destruction of artisanal refineries and illegal storage facilities; leaving many dense black plumes in the skylines of the state. Also, the entire hydrocarbon industry is controlled by the federal government. The state-owned NNPC has a 55% stake in the JV Licenses. The federal government owns the two refineries in the State, and also stakes in the Petrochemical Company and the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas company in the state. The oil assets are “theirs”; if they secure it, they will cripple the source of the artisanal refineries. All of these interests in the organized hydrocarbon industry are exclusively regulated by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR); a job they perform poorly at. There are also poorly funded and ill-equipped agencies such NOSDRA and NESDRA; they are all evidently ineffectual.
While the activities of the organized hydrocarbon industry have contributed to the poor air quality of the state, more disturbing is the growing artisanal refining industry. Preliminary air quality studies carried out by the state ministry of environment pointed in this direction, as well as some other activities, such as burning of tyres. In the last few years, there seem to have been a surge in their activities, and a certain audacity in their operations. It becomes difficult to imagine that such would flourish without some level of complicit assistance by the law enforcement agencies. To have a near perfect supply chain network like they do, leaves many unanswered questions.
This pollution crisis has provoked citizens to action. A group known as “Stop the Soot” (with the hashtag #StoptheSoot) has stepped up the advocacy to call the authorities to action. The group staged a protest last year and is planning another round of protests on Thursday, 19th April 2018. Petitions will be delivered to both the federal and state government, and specific demands will be made to each. Petitions had previously been sent to the Nigerian government, the British government and international development partners. It is not known if they are getting the needed attention or if they will get the desired results, but it’s a necessary citizen action.
This calls for urgent attention. It’s already a public health disaster as public health data within the state suggests. There is an upsurge of respiratory conditions in the state, and many more conditions that need further studies for confirmation. Air quality readings have showed PM levels consistently above acceptable thresholds, especially for people within the vulnerable group. The preliminary studies done last year also suggest the presence of carcinogenic substances when the soot constituents were analysed. Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers state is arguably the busiest hub of the hydrocarbon industry (operations) and already had her pollution problems even before the artisanal refineries became emboldened. If this is not stopped urgently, Rivers state will be facing severe health crises soon. This is an emergency: Port Harcourt and her residents are getting high on soot. May Day, May Day, May Day…!
R. Tombari Sibe is an engineer and environmental consultant. He writes in from Port Harcourt and tweets as @rsibe