There’s fire on the mountain, but nobody seems to be on the run.

Every morning, as Port Harcourt resident, Dagogo Odigiri (not real name), clears his throat while brushing, he notices black phlegm in his bathroom sink. He’s also left with black particles when he cleans his nostrils.

Odigiri doesn’t cough black phlegm because he’s sick - at least not yet. He, alongside millions of Port Harcourt residents have simply been inhaling heavily polluted, toxic air.

Black soot in Port Harcourt

For over 9 months now, Port-Harcourt has been enveloped by an ominous black soot. This has gotten much worse in the last few weeks. But despite the glaring health hazard such environmental pollution could portend, the government has remained largely complacent on the issue.

Although the exact source of the soot remains mostly unknown, there have been various speculations as to the cause. Some allege that the soot was trigged by the Nigerian Navy and Joint Task Force (JTF) burning illegal oil refineries and barges belonging to oil thieves. While others attribute it to activities of illegal bunkers who have moved their operations closer to the city after getting chased from the creeks by government security agents. Burning tires and years of multiple oil spillages have also been fingered as the cause of the mysterious black soot.

But the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) insists that the soot is a result of the activities of oil bunkers. In a chat with Bounce News, NSCDC spokesperson Michael Oguntuase denied the complicity of government agents who have been accused of improperly disposing illegal refineries and products, thus triggering the black soot. Oguntase pointed out that the duty of Civil Defence is to stop the operators from burning and processing the crude oil.

After months of near silence from the Rivers state government, it eventually set up a taskforce to assess the matter a few weeks ago. In a press release sent by the office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Environment, the commissioner, Prof Roseline Konya advised residents “not to panic” but “complement the office of the state government by assisting to look out for the cause of the strange soot and report the location to the government through dedicated phone lines”

Black soot in Port Harcourt

Also, the Rivers State Task Force released a set of public health measures for the soot, warning the public to avoid drinking rain water for now. It also said all sources of water and food should be protected from particles and urged residents to wash all fruits before eating, wash all plates and utensils before use, wash hands regularly, and generally maintain a higher level of hygiene. 

It also urged people who are at risk of respiratory conditions to wear nose masks for now, adding that the soot is a form of pollution with hydrocarbon base. The board further advised food vendors to cover all food for public consumption.

Furthermore, the government reportedly ordered the shutdown of an asphalt-processing plant saying that it belched thick smoke.

But these actions are hardly enough.

If more decisive action isn’t taken by the government, residents of Port Harcourt could be on the verge of a deadly respiratory disease outbreak.

This much has been acknowledged by the Nigerian Senate who, during their plenary session on Tuesday, February 28th, urged the president to note that there is an impending environmental danger in Rivers state.

Further acknowledging the complacence of the government in handling the issue, the senate charged the Ministry of Environment and National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) with investigating the matter and report findings back to the House.

Investigations, however, seem to be all that’s been happening while residents continue to bear the brunt of government’s ineffectiveness.

In a chat with Bounce News, Port Harcourt resident and lawyer, Luscious Nwosu confirmed that several of his staff have since come down with upper respiratory tract infection in the wake of the black soot appearance. He further noted the general indifference of the government to the situation.

Black soot in Port Harcourt

Also, speaking exclusively with Bounce News, Ida-e-erefa Briggs noted that residents hardly go around with protective masks. This is in spite of the severe health risk the black soot endemic poses. According to him, with the current recession in the country, people are more concerned with earning money to feed than care about getting protective masks.

But the health risks associated with the black soot endemic in Port Harcourt cannot be overemphasised.

Speaking with Bounce News, Port Harcourt based Microbiologist, Professor Confidence Wachukwu said the soot may be very dangerous to the health of residents if not properly dealt with. 

Going further, Medical Doctor and president of Medical Women Association, Rivers State, Rosemary Ogu, who also spoke to Bounce News said the soot in Port Harcourt could cause cancer and respiratory diseases.  Ogu also pointed out that the soot which comes in form of carbon deposits can irritate the lungs, causing cough, catarrh and eventually death because it obstructs the airways. 

A chat with several residents of Port Harcourt revealed a general disconnect between the public and government. While some were aware of the government task force set up to tackle the soot menace, others weren’t. This begs the question – just how committed is government to finding a solution?

Also, just how intense and widespread is an enlightenment campaign informing residents on how to stay healthy in the wake of such heavy pollution. More importantly, when will the Rivers state government realise the urgency of such a situation and declare a state of emergency? It all remains to be seen.