Multiple groups of thick black soot stuck to the lungs of a 24-year-old man in a photo taken while he was operated on by Iboroma Aku Shed in the oil-rich Nigerian city of Port Harcourt.

Doctors opened his chest to fix a hole in his diaphragm, but during surgery last year they noticed a charred condition in his lungs.

“When we saw his lungs, we were shocked to see these black sediments spread all over,” Shedd said. “This is someone who has no history of smoking and is very young. But he lives in coastal Rivers State, where oil is being refined illegally.”

Clip through the lung with soot deposits.

The Rivers State soot problem is not new, but it has gotten significantly worse in recent years. Carbon particles released from the unstable crude oil refining process are visibly accumulating in the atmosphere. Black clouds regularly obscure the horizon, and visibly dark layers form along colorful buildings, vehicles and houses covered in debris.

“If you get up in the morning and don’t wipe the floor, the soles of your feet will turn black,” Shedd said. “When you go to your car, you have to wash the soot off the windshield. If you pick your nose, your children’s nose, if you breathe. We live with it every day and see its effects getting worse.”

Doctors in Rivers State have sounded the alarm in recent years about the growing medical burden of soot and air pollution, affecting millions of people in cities across the oil-producing Niger Delta region, and in Port Harcourt in particular.

Respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung infections have nearly doubled in the past five years, according to several doctors.

Doctors said the number of deaths suspected of being linked to air pollution has also risen, although the cause of death can rarely be determined with absolute certainty because autopsies are not commonly performed.

Across the Niger Delta echoes the deep legacy of environmental degradation at the hands of multinational oil and gas companies, with apparent pollution of streams, rivers and air.

However, Rivers’ current black carbon crisis is largely related to illegal oil refining – a lucrative trade in hidden markets that has become an integral part of city life, complicating efforts to contain it.

Samuel Nwanosik, the head of the local government in Equine, points to a car filled with bags of diesel confiscated from illegal oil refineries. Photo: Divine Sabr Okolo/The Guardian

“The scary thing about soot is that it has been going on for years,” said Baye Briggs, a physician and environmental activist in Port Harcourt. “It was invisible before, but it is now visible. We have lived with environmental degradation, we know the air is polluted, but we see its effects in more alarming ways.

“My daughter sometimes has trouble breathing. Sometimes she blows her nose and sees that her nose has black stuff in it. It’s an everyday reality.”

Local government officials say oil from “the boys” – as the young men who run the refineries are called – has sometimes been the dominant fuel source in Rivers State in recent years. It can be found in generators, vehicles, businesses, hospitals and universities, and sometimes is sold for less than half the cost of fuel provided by Nigeria’s state-owned petroleum company. “Even gas stations buy and sell them at official prices,” a government official said.

Black smoke pollutes Port Harcourt in 2017.
Black smoke pollution over Port Harcourt in 2017. Photo: Pius Otomi Ekbi/AFP/Getty Images

And demand is driven in part by broader shortcomings in Africa’s largest oil producer, which does not refine its oil but instead imports it.

The extravagant government offices and luxurious homes housing the political, traditional and business elites of Port Harcourt are a product of Rivers’ oil wealth, few are felt elsewhere.

Chedi Lloyd, a leader in the local government in Ikwémé, which has illegal refineries, said the authorities were being repressed. “We closed at least 300 refineries, we put incredible pressure on them to stop their activities,” he said. “People can confirm and tell you how hard we fought them.”

Lloyd said dozens of young men have been arrested, as well as senior police and security officials who have been found to control and benefit from criminal networks.

pollution map in nigeria
pollution map in nigeria

Despite widespread concerns about soot, the latest campaign has caused mixed feelings. Ken Henshaw, an environmental activist in Port Harcourt, said the boys were often unjustly slandered.

The problems are much deeper than the government suggests. They focus on the youth but who controls the rivers? Who monitors sewers and pipelines? Who controls the ports? It’s the security agencies. Who buys fuel? Everyone does it because it’s cheaper and because people have problems. So boys are just a small part of a much bigger problem.

“Some of them are chemical engineers. They have the experience but they have no place to direct it. And we know that the quality of the oil they produce is often better than the oil we import,” citing a 2020 report that found fuels from the hidden market less polluting to diesel and highly toxic gasoline as in European countries . Export to Nigeria.

The chain includes pipeline saboteurs (an estimated 150,000 barrels of oil are lost in bunkers every day), illegal refineries and agents who resell oil within Nigeria and in neighboring Benin and Togo, transporting it in boats along the coast. The fuel passes unmolested through roadside checkpoints and waterways operated by the police and the military in a show of complicity in the trade at an official level.

After the latest raid, refinery operations were temporarily moved to less patrolled areas, and residents in some areas said soot in the atmosphere looked lighter than it had in months. However, there have been reports of some companies struggling with rising costs, as people who used to buy fuel from the underground market had to buy more expensive fuel than the government provided.

A recently closed illegal refinery in a forest in Ikore.
A recently closed illegal refinery in a forest in Ikore. Photo: Divine Sabr Okolo/The Guardian

Less than a kilometer away in a forest in Ikore, north of Port Harcourt, diesel is soaking up hot ground resulting in a large fenced area where a refinery closed earlier this year. Security officials said the dumped diesel pond was dug into the ground 10 feet deep. The land and trees around it are scorched and charred. The machinery and vessels they used have been cleared, but the surrounding area has not been rehabilitated and appears ready for refining operations to return.