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"It chokes me": a black soot nightmare in the Niger Delta

F dS, Y
topics: Air Pollution
by: Ekpali Saint
located in: Nigeria
tags: Africa, black soot, Niger-Delta, Nigeria, oil pollution

As clouds of black soot billow from illegal oil refineries in Nigeria's Niger Delta region, residents of the area grapple with a worsening health crisis that has no end in sight.

On a cold Sunday morning in mid-December 2021, Benjamin Ogbara left his house for a church service at the Liberation Word Flame Ministry in Yenagoa, the capital of southern Nigeria’s Bayelsa state. Minutes after the service began, Ogbara started experiencing a runny nose and stepped outside. he noticed his white handkerchief had turned black; this was due to the blanket of black soot that covered the city’s skyline. "I became worried," Ogbara recalled.  

In Nigeria, oil accounts for 70 percent of government earnings and 90 percent of foreign exchange. But since oil was discovered in the Niger Delta - Nigeria’s oil producing region - environmental pollution from oil spills and gas flare have continued to put millions of lives at risk.

In recent years, theft of crude oil from pipelines, where people break pipelines and channel the oil to illegal (or artisanal) refineries set up in the bushes, has increased in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, which includes Bayelsa. This contributed to the proliferation of black soot - the impure carbon particles that result from the incomplete burning of hydrocarbons.

The recent black soot seen in Yenagoa was associated with the artisanal (or illegal) refining of petroleum products. This illegal refining involves collecting crude oil and heating it in large drums in order to extract petroleum products. In the process, carbon monoxide and other substances are released into the air, causing both environmental and health hazards.

"The artisanal refining seems to be intensified and no longer hidden,” Alagoa Morris, Project Officer and Head, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) at the Niger Delta Resource Centre in Yenagoa, told FairPlanet. “For now, we think either the activities are increasing mainly in the night to avoid people seeing the columns of smokes going up or they have perfected the act of refining in the daytime that the smoke no longer goes up in the column in the way we normally see in those days when they use ordinary firewood and some other things as source of energy to heat up the crude oil. So, reasonably, all fingers are pointing to this local refinery as a source of black soot in Yenagoa.”

In Yenagoa, soot pollution has also increased with the destruction of illegal oil refineries and the products made there by the Nigerian military in an effort to crack down on their operations. When they set fire to petroleum products, carbon is released into the atmosphere, causing soot particles to drop on and stick to houses, clothes and other materials.

"The truth of the matter is that the way security operatives handle [the situation] is bad,” Ogbara, said. “When they set ablaze these products, the carbon goes to the atmosphere. To me, instead of burning and destroying the environment, it is better the products are confiscated." 

Deadly Health Impacts of black soot

Around the world, black soot remains one of the deadliest agents of air pollution, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change. With 23 percent - about 12.6 million - of all global deaths linked to the environment, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every year, exposure to air pollution causes 7 million deaths globally and 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

Globally, Nigeria ranks fourth for air pollution and accounts for the largest portion of the 600,000 annual deaths from air pollution in Africa, as estimated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In Nigeria, 94 percent of the country’s population is exposed to air pollution levels that exceed WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants, the World Bank’s Little Green Data Book 2015 reveals. 

Experts say that soot exacerbates respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia, coronary heart disease, pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Due to the tiny size of the soot particles, which are formed when gaseous molecules are heated to high temperatures, they can easily penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream when inhaled, leading to major health problems and sometimes death.

"When there is black soot everywhere, you are prone to pulmonary disease," Agoro Enis, a Yenagoa-based laboratory scientist, said. "The longevity of the people is being reduced because of the black soot. Black soot has a lot of chemical and a lot of toxic substance - carbon monoxide is there [...] So when you inhale them, they affect the body and from there it will lead to disease condition and when exposed to this condition, there is possibility of you dying.”

"It is what you give to the environment that the environment gives to you"

Now, people continue to deal with health problems associated with black soot. Ogbara, for instance, has been complaining of a respiratory challenge due, mainly, to the poor air quality caused by the soot in his region.

“I noticed some respiratory issues. I also suffered from cough and catarrh,” he said.

Just like Ogbara, 45-year-old Aminu Amin sometimes suffers from respiratory issues as a result of black soot. These days, he no longer opens his doors and windows, and to prevent himself from inhaling the soot, he now wears a face mask.

“I don’t open my front door until I am sure the soot has subsided. The moment I open, the thing comes in and it chokes me and it affects my breathing system. Sometimes, I wear face mask before going out,” he said. “I am fortunate I am not asthmatic, else the impact would have been terrible. It is something you perceive. You will know that you are inhaling something because the content is huge. Because it chokes me, I have decided not to open my door and window.”

He adds that, “the implication is worrisome. It is what you give to the environment that the environment gives to you. We are polluting our environment; definitely our health will be affected.”

Inadequate governmental intervention

In 2017, Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, visited the Niger Delta region, including Bayelsa state. The visit was part of the commitment of the Nigerian government to address the Niger Delta situation following the emergence of the Niger Delta avengers - a militant group in the region. During that period, stakeholders in the region presented reports about and recommendations for how to tackle the environmental hazards they face in the region.

In one of the meetings with the Vice President, Alagoa Morris of the Niger Delta Resource Centre in Yenagoa made a presentation on the environmental challenge plaguing the Niger Delta region, including Bayelsa. During his presentation, Morris stressed the need to legalise illegal refineries and upgrade the illegal refineries to modular refineries. But since then, Morris said the Nigerian government has failed to take action.

"The issue of upgrading these local refineries to modular refineries was raised [as well as] licensing the operators and setting standards for them to operate. The vice president promised something will be done. Unfortunately, nothing has been done," Morris said. "[The] government should come up with a standardised operational formula and allow these people [illegal refiners] to come together; get them registered, license them so that they will also contribute to the GDP of the country. They will pay taxes as they operate and they will also contribute towards a sustainable and peaceful environment." 

But where efforts of the Nigerian government to tackle black soot deposits have been inadequate, the people now live with this environmental problem.

In the meantime, Ogbara is recovering, but he hopes the government will take the right steps to tackle soot pollution in Yenagoa, where he has a law firm.

"I am gradually feeling better," said Ogbara, adding that "The health implication is enormous. It is environmental suicide. The concentration is high. With the pollution, living organisms cannot survive. All should condemn it, [because] the environment is our life. We should all join hands together and protect it. The government should also step in to address the situation."

Image by Towhid Shamsi

Article written by:
PHOTO
Ekpali Saint
Author
Nigeria
Smoke rises from an illegal refinery operation in the distance in Nigeria. Experts say that soot exacerbates respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia, coronary heart disease, pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
© George Osodi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The recent black soot seen in Yenagoa was associated with the artisanal (or illegal) refining of petroleum products.
© George Osodi/Bloomberg via Getty Images