When I first heard of the Soot in Port Harcourt, the Rivers capital, my initial reaction was that it felt something ripped out from a horror movie. Residents of the state have been vociferous about the situation: the soot particles is in the air they breathe and it clings to their bodies, finding its it way into their homes, car filters, and AC vents. In the mornings, the atmosphere is thick and foggy, a miasma that envelopes the city. And when it rains, the soot ominously comes down like black blood. Port Harcourt, as we now know it, is slowly disintegrating and danger has never seemed more grave.
— Orekelewa (@Klaxique) March 24, 2018
On social media, the #StopTheSoot hashtag has taken a life of its own, tweeted by celebrities as well and a petition to the federal government was created to stop the brewing health crisis. And amongst this froth of activism is Ifeoma Chukwuogo’s documentary film Collateral Damage, which is already gaining media exposure it needs. In the film, eye witness accounts, videos and photos provide a much needed human face to the crisis and enriches the conversation on the Port Harcourt soot problem, straddling in relevant news articles from sources which the documentary gives credits to at the end.
In the first few minutes, a mother named Saolmey is shown looking at her sleeping baby through a mosquito net as she narrates her experience, then she proceeds to wiping the net with a small white cloth. What appears on the cloth, alarmingly, is a smearing of soot. As Collateral Damage progresses, a handful of Port Harcourt residents are interviewed and their stories of how the soot is negatively affecting their lives is frightening. Even more, they are helpless. The common range for soot particle size is between 0.25 to 1000 microns, extremely minute to be inhaled and it’s mind-numbing that these deadly, carcinogenic particles have been associated with Port Harcourt since 2016, when the crisis first brewed.
I curiously wanted to know, through the documentary, the source of the soot. Until now, I didn’t know about “crude oil cooking” in the Niger Delta, a dangerous but lucrative business as framed by title of this enlightening Sahara Reporters piece. The practice is apparently rampant, and the process involves domestically refining crude oil illegally. Perhaps this is where the documentary should have deeply delved into, with controlled, investigative sharpness, if only to establish the fact that residents are just as complicit in the city’s soot crisis as is the government.
Gas flaring and the resultant air pollution, and the combustion of confiscated crude oil from bunkering also contributes to the soot’s insidious omnipresence. The documentary is almost entirely bleak. “The state government is gaining from the operations that causes the soot,” a man says cynically. If this goes unresolved, the long-term environmental and health effects will truly be devastating, from respiratory tract problems to lung cancer, a small-scale Chernobyl disaster waiting to happen. In Port Harcourt, the requisite health facilities to inform diagnosis are unavailable, and so, the city would not only be dealing with the soot crisis, but also lacking in the infrastructure to check and monitor the extent of damage.
For many years, the Niger Delta region has suffered environmental degradation due to government-sanctioned crude oil activities, and the documentary makes it known that the NNPC and other relevant bodies have been quiet on the issue. But the residents of Port Harcourt are left with no choice, but to keep amplifying their voice