Alarm over mystery soot in Rivers

■ Govt moves to avert health disaster
■ 6 million people risk cancer –Expert

From TONY JOHN, Port Harcourt

The people of Rivers State have for sometime been under serious environmental threat caused by a black powdery substance. The black substance, which is also called soot, is predominantly witnessed in the morning and evening on vehicles, roofs, clothes and water surfaces.  In fact, virtually everything is being affected by it. Till date, residents wake up in the morning and see the weather cloudy as if it would rain.  Sometimes, it appears like dews. That has been the situation in the State since September 2016.
Earlier when the substance was noticed, nobody took it seriously until recently when it increased unbearably.  Residents had attributed the problem to oil bunkering, popularly called Kpo-fire. But it has remained in the atmosphere in spite of the reported destruction of illegal oil refineries in the state by security agencies.
As the situation got more severe, the state government on February 8, this year, set up a task force to tackle the soot polluting the atmosphere of Port Harcourt and its environs. The task force was mandated to investigate and resolve the environmental challenge. It was part of the resolutions of the State Executive Council meeting held at the Government House, Port Harcourt, that day, which was chaired by Governor Nyesom Ezenwo Wike. The task force comprised the Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya; Commissioner of Special Duties, Mr. Emeka Onowu; and the Commissioner for Information, Dr. Austin Tam-George as members. The committee also had technical experts as members. They were to liaise with major stakeholders to resolve the environmental challenge posed by the soot.
Briefing the media after the Executive Council meeting, Commissioner for Information, Dr. Tam-George stated that the resolution was reached after the Commissioner for Environment, Konya, submitted a report on the preliminary results of its ministerial investigation.
Meanwhile, three companies operating in Rivers State had been sealed off by the state government for producing carbon emission that endangered the lives of residents. A special task force set up recently by Governor Nyesom Wike recently clamped down on the three companies, which included Chinese Government Company (CGC), HSH Engineering Company and AUC Ashphalt Company. This is even as a surgeon at the Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital (BMH), Port Harcourt, Dr. Furo Green, has raised the alarm that over six million people live at the risk of cancer in the State.
Prior to the constitution of the task force by Wike, the House of Assembly had expressed dissatisfaction with the activities of multinational oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, which they alleged, have caused serious environmental pollution and health hazard, to residents of the state. Consequently, the Assembly at a recent plenary passed a resolution to find a lasting solution to environmental degradation in the state, especially as it related to the emergence of soot.
In his comments at the end of the plenary, Speaker of the House of Assembly, Ikuinyi-Owaji Ibani, regretted that oil had become a curse to the Niger Delta region, especially the state. Following the resolution of the House, Ibani directed the House Committee on Environment to liaise with the state Ministry of Environment to investigate the level of compliance to relevant laws by companies operating in the state.
He further directed: “The House Committee on Judiciary should also interface with the Ministry of Justice to take legal steps to solve the problems of soot found in Rivers State”.
The decision to investigate the development came through a motion under matters of public importance moved by the member representing Onelga Constituency 1, Christian Ahiakwo. Moving the motion titled “Motion to investigate the compliance level of companies operating in Rivers State to Environmental Laws”, Ahiakwo submitted that the soot portended great danger to the lives of Rivers people if not addressed.
He said: “Mr Speaker, the society is being over-heated daily due to issues of increasing level of environmental degradation as a result of man-made activities. Worse still, some of these companies that are responsible for this ugly situation are economic migrants from civilized nations of the world operating on double standard basis. You will recall that sometime in November 2016, soot that threatened the Rivers environment.  Roofs of buildings, cars and persons were affected in one way or the other. Preliminary investigation revealed traces of hydrocarbon, which is suggestive of oil and gas origin. This situation portends serious danger for us, who are living and our children yet unborn if appropriate actions are not taken to forestall future occurrence,” Ahiakwo stated.
Debating the motion, the lawmakers regretted that multinational oil firms had continued to degrade the environment without doing anything to restore it. Majority Leader, Martin Amaewhule, in his contribution, regretted that oil companies had continued to violate environmental laws in the country, saying such practices were not obtainable in other countries of the world. He also regretted that multinationals were fond of attributing the blame to militant activities in the Niger Delta region.
On his part, Enemi George, representing Asalga II, commended the motion and blamed the development on security agencies, which destroy illegal oil refineries without following laid down procedures. Also, Minority Leader, Benibo Anabraba, blamed the Ministry of Justice for not doing anything to prosecute defaulting oil multinationals.
The task force, however, swung into action shortly after it was set up. Few days after, they sealed off three companies operating in Aluu community, Ikwerre Local Government Area of the state for allegedly operating machines that emitted high magnitude of hydrocarbon into the atmosphere.
Speaking on the development, the State Commissioner for Information and Communication, Dr. Tam-George, in a statement, said the government set up of the task force in its efforts to resolve the environmental challenge in the state. According to him, the committee sealed off the three companies for causing air pollution and breaching the environmental of the laws Tam-George stated that the directors of the affected companies would face prosecution in accordance with the laws, warning individuals and companies that engage in practices that pollute the air and ruin the environment to desist or face the full weight of the law.
He noted that while the state remained open for investors, it was committed to the implementation of the United Nations (UN) declaration on the importance of fresh air and the creation of sustainable livelihood in the communities.
Tam-George said: “The asphalt plant was found to be producing thick black smog out of the furnace in the process of burning Asphalt, heavily polluting the air. The task force immediately shut down the asphalt plant.  All the directors of the company will be prosecuted according to the law. The public is therefore advised to cooperate with the task force by providing useful information on the soot.”
Meanwhile, a consultant surgeon at the Braithwaite Memorial Hospital (BMH), Port Harcourt, Dr. Furo Green, has decried the impact of the soot, stressing that six million Rivers people were at the risk of cancer over hydrocarbon emission. Green said many people were at risk of developing cancer of the lung and other respiratory problems following prolonged exposure to the soot caused by hydrocarbon. He urged the Federal Government to monitor the activities of multinational companies that were into hydrocarbon processing.
Green said: “We all suddenly noticed increased discharge of black powdery substances in the environment which the Ministry of Environment has traced to hydrocarbon. The implication of inhaling these hydrocarbon particles is that it can lead to acute inflammation of the airways, which can precipitate to hyper stimulation of the airway and actually precipitate asthmatic attack on individuals who are predisposed to asthma, and over a long period of time, it can precipitate chronic obstruction of the airways, which we refer to chronic bronchitis. The figure of people affected by this might even be larger than six million because other neighbouring states are also experiencing the soot.”
Meanwhile, the police recently foiled a planned protest by residents of the state against soot emission. About 8am on the fateful day, residents were seen gathering near Isaac Boro Pack, Port Harcourt, venue for the take off of the protest. But armed policemen prevented from entering the park by armed policemen, as they used their vehicles to barricade the entrance. The protesters later proceeded to a radio station in Port Harcourt, where the Commissioner for Information addressed them after a live programme on the soot emission. The organisers of the peaceful demonstration said they were concerned citizens of the state who were eager to see an end to the soot emission.
The Commissioner, while calling on the protesters and the general public to cooperate with the task force, by providing useful information on the soot, assured that the state government was determined to bring the ugly situation to an end. He urged the public to report all cases of emission to three designated numbers.
Although no death has been recorded in connection with the upsurge of the black powdery emission, members of the public have expressed fear that their lives were in danger.
According to the Head of Mass Communication, Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), Dr. Fred Amadi, all eyes were on the state government to see how the situation would be remedied. He said: “It is for us to wait and see whether the act of shutting down the three Chinese firms would stop the circulation of the soot in the state.  If it continues, all the efforts made by government will amount to nothing. Let government pursue it with all seriousness. We are watching to see what could be the outcome of that act. It is a serious health hazard to everyone. If adults could complain about the effects, what about children? If the problem continues, there would be alarm bells.”
Similarly, the Chairman and National Coordinator of South-South Chiefs, Elders and Opinion Leaders Network Association, High Chief Omubo Harry, has called on the state government to expedite action on curbing the pollution before lives are lost.
He lamented: “Borokiri in Port Harcourt metropolis is the worst affected area.  It is like the place is the depot of the soot. I don’t know those behind the menace.  Government should know and they have to respond speedily before people start dying innocently. The effects are enormous. You can’t fetch water and keep it outside or open.  You can’t wash white clothes and keep them outside.  Remember, the black powdery substance is predominantly noticed in the early morning and evening.
“The only way we are coping with the situation is by closing our doors and windows from 5pm daily till dawn. Can you imagine the kind of heat the rooms would be producing if you close all the channels that allow ventilation into the house?
“Rivers people are into serious health problems; government should take proactive measures to tackle it. We are afraid it may cause more harm to human lives, especially the respiratory system. It could be worse for asthmatic patients. Also, government should provide preventive measures like something that covers the mouth and nose.  If it would require spraying something in the air to reduce the strength and magnitude of the soot, government should do that.”
Rivers residents, however, continue to await whatever preventive measures the state government would recommend.  This is because even after the closure of the three Chinese firms, there has not been any respite.

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