Interview: Oil companies are already warning their staff on days to come out because of soot – Tunde Bello

The soot menace in Portharcourt and other parts of Rivers State has become, in recent times, a greater source of concern to the residents.
There seem not to be a decisive approach to the issue on the parts of the government.
However, a group has taken it upon themselves to draw the much-needed attention to the problem with hopes that government will sit up and tackle it heads on.

TPCN spoke to the convener of the #StopTheSoot campaign, Mr. Tunde Bello in Portharcourt and he shared his honest views and proffered solutions to the problem.


TPCN: So how has the campaign gone so far on the issue of the black soot in Port Harcourt

Bello: Okay well, it’s been on for about 2years now (That’s the stop the soot Campaign). We decided to take it a step forward after our first and initial walk and campaign which the Rivers State government through the commissioner for environment and the commissioner for information met with us and then we explained and spoke to them.

We engaged them; that was February 2017, and since then, we’ve intensified efforts to ensure that Rivers people are aware of the impending dangers of the occurrence and appearance of the soot in rivers State.

We made it a focal point of responsibility to make sure that everybody is aware because that’s the first thing first and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.
We have tried to publicize the occurrence and then the implications as well as the dangers. So far we believe with what we are seeing every day, with Feedbacks and then with comments and observation of people, we know that we have successfully gained traction towards the awareness which is the focal point of the stop the soot campaign.

First and foremost, we can’t stop it since we do not have the powers and the funding to do that, but we need to draw attention and create the awareness which is the basic thing for people to take care of themselves since, as it were, the government is not really doing anything as much as is required.

TPCN: The Government have not been forthcoming on the issue?

Bello: I won’t say they’re not doing anything because it will look as if we’re casting out aspersions on whatever they are doing. But there has not been anything major that we can hold onto or see that this is actually a huge impact.

TPCN: Rivers state Government went about shutting down factories initially and that didn’t work. Now they are blaming the Federal Government, saying that it is the Military that is burning modular refineries and causing all this soot or is there any other story to it?

TPCN: Well from our own end, when we shouted and then came out, the Rivers State Government through the Commissioner for the environment, went and shut down a factory in Igurwuta, and we thought that’s was cool. No problem with that, but that’s just one factory out of many. We as a campaign, we’re not saying that that is the source of this soot.
You see, the problem is, we are a Country of no planning, a Country of not being proactive and a Country of people who don’t take actions, we Just talk, and unfortunately that’s what it seemed like the campaign was doing until suddenly when people started seeing the impact of the occurrence of the sooth.

TPCN: was it only one factory that was shut down?

Bello: are you aware of any other one?

And that’s grossly inadequate because you cannot say a factory in Igurwuta is remitting soot and then it covers the whole of Rivers State and then you shut it down and the soot is still there. So that’s to tell you that, that’s not the direction. Of cause, we are all aware of the major source of this soot, which is the kpo-fire; the illegal refineries which make sure that the combustion is not complete, the refining is not complete and it is not done on standardizing processes and procedures.

And of course, there is the economic benefit of all these things, so you have to be very careful of what you say and how you say it. But be that as it may, we must say what we have to say and which is: soot kills and it is with us.

You know, I was saying today that if it were Ebola, probably because you know that if you shake somebody or touch somebody with Ebola, you will die the following day or after 7days you die, maybe all of us would be running up and down. But this is something that is coming into our lives in a bit and in pieces and the effect is not known now until maybe 7year after or 10years after.
Unfortunately as well, some people are already seeing the effect, people are already having rashes, people are already having tight chests, people are already having cough, cold, catarrh and pregnant women are already having issue with high blood pressure, chest pain, respiratory problems and unfortunately, the State does not have the capacity to handle this kind of thing if there is an epidemic.

And we keep shouting that instead of waiting till we have a blowout, a fatal incident, why don’t you do something. So if the Rivers State government is saying it is the Federal Government, we quite agree because in sincerity, there is little the State government can do when it comes to the air.

You know, because the space, maybe as they say “it belongs to the Federal Government” but of course, we need to know what exactly the Rivers State government is doing, and one of the things we told them that day that we took to the street was, we need them to conduct a search, a research, a study, which they said they did, but we haven’t seen the result.

TPCN: I think that will be an environmental impact assessment or something…

Bello: It’s not about environmental assessment but the composition of the soot.
What is the composition of this thing that we are seeing on our bodies, that we are seeing on our floors, on our cars, on our clothing’s, on our windows, on our tables and chairs?
What is the composition and what is the danger in the composition? They have not done it, we don’t have the capacity. As I am talking to you now, the few of us that are contributing money, we are contributing money towards about Two Million Naira (₦2,000,000.00k) to just buy an equipment that measures air quality, not just in a particular spot but around Rivers State and we are not asking anybody for money because we want to daily measure air quality around Rivers State and dish it out.
Oil companies are already telling their staffs not to come out some particular days because they have the equipment, they are telling them to tell their kids not to come out at some particular days and time.

But for Rivers people who are going about their businesses, for poor people who are just going up and down, they don’t know what they are inhaling, they don’t know what they are taking in, they don’t know what they are eating.
These people need to know the danger and only Government can do that because if I come out tell you that the air quality in this place is bad, don’t go out, you will probably not listen to me because you will feel I’m not an authority.

We are saying that the Government should fund the ministry of environment and the ministry of the environment should come out and tell us.
So if they are blaming the Federal Government, then good, but after the blame, what next?

So if Rivers State is saying that it is the factory in Omagwa or Igurwuta that is causing it and after they’ve shut it down, why are we still having this soot? So it’s beyond politics, it’s beyond talk, it demands action, and the action we are saying is, they should stop the soot. One of the ways they should stop the soot is:

1. Ensure that the people engaged in illegal refineries are engaged themselves, they are consulted, they are spoken to, they are assisted. If they are going to give them something, if they are going to tell them to stop it, they have to stop it. If they are going to compensate them, they have to compensate them. They said its illegal, so anything that is illegal is illegal, so they have to find a way to do it, to take them off.

2. The slaughter activities where people use tyres to burn cow meat and all that, this has to stop because it’s not hygienic so this has to stop, and the Rivers State ministry of environment, ministry of health and then the people in charge of slaughter activities should as a matter of urgency go and stop all these people; the butchers, the people who slaughter animals to stop using tyres to make available meat, it’s not hygienic.

3. Then the JTF, the task force that is in charge of monitoring illegal product and distributions and movement and all of that should be reconstituted. Why we say this is because, if you are seizing illegal products, the illegal product you are seazing is Nigeria’s product so why are we burning it? Why are we wasting it? They should save it, they should keep it, they should warehouse it.

TPCN: Have there been any kind of interactions between the Military

Bello: Yes, we had a town hall meeting where we, through the social democratic network invited all the agencies and stakeholders. We expected all agencies involved, NOSDRA, NEMA, NESDRA, Nigerian army, Nigerian Navy, the ministry of works, the ministry of environment, the ministry of health and the civil society to come together and we meet at Uniport.

But unfortunately, many of the agencies that are concerned were not there. They didn’t come out. What we are saying that day was; all hands must be on deck to ensure that the Federal Government that we are looking out to, takes responsibility, to ensure that the Rivers State government takes responsibility, because the conspiracy of silence is just unusually surprising to us.

Why is everybody quite? Why is the Federal Government quite about this? Why is the Rivers State Government quite about this? If they are shouting, they are not shouting enough. If Rivers State Government is blaming the Federal Government, it is not doing it enough. We desire, we demand and we deserve clean air, and that is what we are demanding from Rivers State Government.

We can’t go to the Federal Government, we have to go to our immediate constituency which is the State Government, and we are not saying that Government is not doing anything.

The Governor of Rivers State came out, and you know in his wisdom, he constituted a task force, a committee, which was wonderful. He backed his word with actions by constituting the committee. But the committee is not there anymore, technically, because I know the management team, the board or the executive, the State Council was dissolved and new people were appointed.
But after that, we haven’t seen any much of action, although the commissioner of the environment was re-appointed, and she has come out to say her bit, but we feel they should do more.

TPCN: I believe that you people have done a very nice job.

Bello: We think so too!

TPCN: But in this kind of issue, we are not going to leave it to Government alone since Government seems to be playing hide and seek on the issue and are you people thinking of any other approach, maybe educating the masses on having…….

Bello: Yes, today we were on the radio. Every week, we are on the radio, we are talking to the people, we are telling the people what to do. One of the things we’ve been saying is how people should take care of themselves since Nigerians are known to be providing everything for themselves. We provide power, we provide education, we provide almost everything by ourselves, so this one is not different.

So we are saying; protect yourself, don’t come out too early, don’t stay out too late, protect yourself if you are jogging or taking a walk, wear nose mask, and avoid staying outside for too long, because the thing settles late in the night and early in the morning. You know, that is why you see it on your car screens, on your windows, on your floors, and because of the children and pregnant women and the elderly, we’ve said that people should go for regular check-ups, particularly for respiratory issues. Take a lot of vitamins, eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, drink a lot of water and wash and bath yourselves a minimum of two times a day and if you have water, do it more than twice. Take your bath every time, three times a day, two times, four times, wash your hands, don’t allow the children to play in the open too much, with sand particularly.
We’ve said it: once your kids complain about chest pain or cough, please take them to the hospital, tell the doctor, they know what to do.

I’m not a doctor but I know when something is wrong with my body, so we’ve also asked people to plant aloe-Vera so that it absolves the soot. Snake plant, that’s what they call it. Do some air quality filtering, services your ACs, clean your fans, dust your room, wear nose mask, close your windows when you are sleeping at night, avoid too much exposure to the air in the night. And then for the men who go out at night for enjoyment and for all of that, we want them to avoid staying too late at night because the thing drops on your body.

These days, you will notice that it’s now greasy and oily unlike before that it used to be dusty
So this is very dangerous times for us and we must approach it that way. People selling food in the open should as much as possible cover it, Garri, flour, grains. We like to eat a lot of things in the open in this place and it’s dangerous

TPCN: Bole etc.

Bello: yes, bole, suya, you know, people should avoid all those things.

TPCN: Without taking much of your time, have you made any attempt at getting to the international Communities because we know that yes, Nigeria, that is the way it is, once international communities pressures on something we rush and do it?

Bello: Yes, we have spoken to UNEPA (United Nations Environmental Protection Agency). As I am talking to you, we just got a response from the British Prime Minister (Theresa May).
We wrote a petition and they responded immediately, you know, and about 10 days, we got a feedback from the Prime Minister of Britain.
One of the things we are getting from the international organizations are: the Government itself has to say something, the Government itself has to say it needs help.
But no foreign Country, no foreign help will come if the Government doesn’t ask. And they also need data, they need information, which is why we are telling people to send us information, pictures, images.

We have gone to Bonny, we have taken pictures. We have gone to Borokiri, we have gone to Abonima, we have gone to Degema, we’ve gone to Bakanna, we’ve gone to Woji, we’ve gone to Aboloma, we’ve gone to Eagle Island, we’ve gone to Eleme, we ‘ve gone to Onne and these are places where heavy industrial activities are going on, Refinery activities and all that, and we need people to join us in this campaign to demand a stop to this. The government cannot stop the refineries from working, but they need to check their activities that are going on.

TPCN: Some were saying on tweeter, today that Indorama are flaying gas and the colour is something else.

Bello: Well as much as I want to support and admit that gas flaying is part of it, but gas flaring has been here for a long time. Gas flaring didn’t start two years ago, it didn’t start three years ago, we didn’t have these soot four years ago. So, there is more to it. The top-five, the mixture of bad fuel with good fuel, the incompletion of the refinery process is part of the problem.
When you buy bad quality fuel, you put it in your car, you put it in your generator, and you fire it, it is contributing to the incident of soot. So, it’s a massive issue that Government must take seriously and if Government is not taking it seriously then we are heading for an epidemic. And if it comes, we will not be able to handle it.

If you go to some of our hospitals; the two biggest hospitals in Rivers State, Uniport, BMH, you will know that we don’t have the capacity to handle sure thing.
The hospitals are functioning, but the hospitals are stretched so if you add this to what they are currently handling, it’s going to create chaos and that’s what we are avoiding and that is why we are shouting that they should stop the soot.

So it’s not like we just want to make noise. It’s because of the impending dangers in not stopping it now, which everybody will see. We already have kids having rashes, cough issues, chest pain, respiratory problems and we don’t want it to escalate.
We don’t want this State to become another place where people can’t visit until they wear nose mask. We don’t want to get to that point.

TPCN: Thank you very much, sir

Bello.: Thank you very much.