Toxic waste, black soot and danger all over
The toxic waste scare that hit the ancient town of Koko in Delta State, and the emission of hydro-carbon into the environment by some companies in Port Harcourt, the other day, are two incidents that must not be treated with kid gloves. Beyond their short term and long term health consequences, which experts identify as respiratory problems, environmental degradation and the risk of cancer, these unfortunate incidents are an indictment of Nigeria’s agencies and such other national government concerns that should pre-empt and avert the situation.
Residents of Port Harcourt woke up one day to behold a gust of black powdery substance discharged into the atmosphere by a certain processing company. Upon observation by residents, this discharged black matter was later to be identified as hydrocarbon or black soot. The magnitude of the discharged hydrocarbon was such that black coatings of soot not only stained clothings, furniture, household equipments, amongst other things, but was also inhaled by passers-by.
Concerning the Koko incident, it was alleged that an oil company in joint venture with the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) deposited some substance evacuated from barges by trucks in the area. However, there are differing opinions about the toxicity of the substance allegedly buried in the area. Whilst some spokespersons claimed the substance deposited is sludge from an oil company, and as such a recycle-able matter, the secretary of the Itsekiri Leaders of Thought (ILOT), Amorighoye Mene, alleged that tests showed that the substance is “toxic and dangerous”. This Koko toxic waste scare is coming 30 years after an Italian company dumped a consignment of 3,500 tonnes of some of the world’s most hazardous waste in the same community.
These two events raise questions about the diligence of environmental and regulatory agencies. For instance, in the case of Koko toxic waste, how did the shippers of the hazardous consignment get into the country in the first place? Whose responsibility was it or is it to ensure that vessels coming into the country are properly checked? Who gave clearance for the vessel to berth in Nigerian waters? Are the nation’s seaports, just as the land borders so porous and overwhelmed by corruption?
Like the Koko incident, the reckless Port Harcourt hydrocarbon emission also casts a big question on the integrity of the authorities necessary for monitoring the activities of the accused companies. Could it be that the nation’s regulating authorities were unaware of the business operations of those companies? If they were aware, what measures did they take to prevent this environmental mishap?
So many reasons have been adduced for this kind of incidents: complacence on the part of regulatory authorities, lack of vigilance on the part of the populace, greed, corruption, and ignorance. Perhaps, ignorance ranks higher than any other. Ignorance about the environmental situation of the country and about the nature of waste is a major factor on which other reasons depend. With the advanced technology involved in the production of gadgets and in carrying out break-through technological research, wastes of all kinds are generated. And given the low level of scientific and technological awareness, it is difficult to understand the complex science of practical waste management beyond the knowledge provided by general literature.
Koko and Port Harcourt are a metaphor for other towns and cities that are afflicted by deliberate environmental mishaps. In the hinterland, outside the watch of law enforcement and regulatory bodies, ignorant Nigerians are exposed to the harm caused by toxic and hazardous substances. For a government that should protect the lives and property of people, such negligent exposure to hazardous elements, is a deprivation of citizens’ political desserts and a denial of their rights.
All this re-affirms the need for advocacy. Community associations must mobilize themselves and enlighten their people against the antics of unscrupulous contractors and foreign companies who promise fantastic help projects to them for no just cause. In this regard, the people should be taught to understand that they are custodians of the land, lives and property of their community; that they have a stake in the affairs of their environment.
It is for this reason that this newspaper commends the alarm raised over the hydrocarbon fumes by residents of Port Harcourt and the prompt response of the state government in setting up the Task Force on Black Soot to investigate and resolve the environmental challenge. It is gratifying that the state government has closed down three companies, namely the Chinese Government Company (CGC), HSH Engineering Company and AUC Asphalt Company for operating machines that emit high volume of hydrocarbon into the atmosphere. Even though the government regulatory agencies require tip-offs from the general public to diligently discharge their duties, they should be more pro-active and anticipate environmental breaches such as these. Experiences in this country have often pointed to the likelihood of such occurrences. Although the companies have been closed down, the investigation of the Task Force should be carried out expeditiously, and if the companies are indicted for criminal breaches, they should be made to face stiff penalties.
Nigerians should be cautious of unscrupulous business persons and contractors, who in concert with foreign companies, are scouting around for dumpsites in African countries to deposit hazardous wastes. These contractors leverage on the poverty and ignorance of people in rural communities to hoodwink them; they dangle carrots and liaise with traditional rulers and communities leaders to get ‘community’ approval for their nefarious activities.
Above all, the role of government in safeguarding the health and welfare of the people must also be entrenched. That role demands a synergy of all government concerns relevant to environmental sustainability. The Nigerian Immigration Service, the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Education all need to work together at multilateral levels in order to address this national embarrassment.