We Can’t Breathe: Plight of Syokimau residents in face of air pollution


We Can't Breathe: Plight of Syokimau residents in face of air pollution

The world is facing a pandemic that has thrown economies into a spin and the number of mortalities is rising.

Many companies and factories have been forced to shut down, the world over and environmentalists have reported a massive decline in air and water pollution. The earth is breathing again but is it same for Kenya?

Before, COVID-19, Syokimau in Machakos County was the epi-centre of industrial pollution: from noise, water to air. There are signs that there might be increased pollution.

On Mombasa road, just around the inland container depot, dark and white smog billows from a factory in Syokimau that has been on the radar for over a year now; polluting the air as nearby residents watch helplessly.

Endmor Steel Millers is located just after the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and the evidence of a choking atmosphere when you approach Syokimau is overpowering.

Beautiful homes have been ravaged by smog from the steel factory.

Joshua Odhiambo Nyakune has been observing the factory for sometime now: “That’s what it does. The factory operates during day and night. I am not doing guess work, it’s something that happens. The release a lot of smoke during the night. It’s like they know, it’s the best time to do that.”

The most affected estate is the neighbouring Bustani Villas where one Flavia Mungai has been a resident for over a decade now.

For over four years, the factory has been her neighbor and she says the struggle to breathe has been immense.

“Before, they would put it off for some couple of hours and they would do it a lot at night…..But now, it’s throughout the day….the whole night…. 24 hours….” she says.

Owing to pollution of the air around her house, she never opens her windows. “A lot of black soot…we have to clean everyday the surfaces, furniture, window seals ….everywhere…every morning you wake up, that’s the trend,” she adds.

Since COVID-19 hit the country in March, schools have been closed and so her three children are at home; but despite Bustani Villas having a beautiful playing field, she can’t allow them to go out and their bikes have been locked.

Whenever they want to have fun, the most they can is play video games in the sitting room because whenever they get out, they come back sick.

“So will you take medicine for the rest of your life or what will you do….nobody opens windows for fresh air…because there’s no fresh air,” their mother says.

Citizen TV began looking into the activities of Endmor Steel Millers following a public outcry from this neighborhood: complaints were rising on social media by the day.

Images of the factory emitting black and white smog did rounds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp but no one in authority seemed moved by the plight of those living in Bustani and its environs.

Citizen TV teamed up with Code for Africa, a data journalism organisation , to investigate the claims using digital air quality monitoring machines.

An online survey for the Syokimau residents was commissioned so that the data would elaborate how big the issue of pollution was and within one day, over 50 people had responded.

70% of them complained of having developed respiratory illness owing to pollution but one case caught our attention: that of Nazir Hakada.

He had lost his daughter to respiratory complications and his son was now struggling with similar conditions.

“My loss has been very painful and I would not want any other parent to go through what I went through,” he told Citizen TV.

Nazir who resides at Sawada Villas started documenting air pollution around his estate the moment children started exhibiting chest related problems.

Using his phone, he would take images every single night showing just how Endmor Steel Millers was polluting their neighborhood.

Since the factory wasn’t releasing emissions through its chimney, he captured most of the smoke ending up in the neighboring Bustani Villas.

“There times when I am sitting here and decide that let me have a walk….when I go out lets say 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, I realise I can’t breathe … I see the factory, I get my phone camera…this is how these pictures have been coming out……it’s not something that I have been sitting and wanting to target the factory….those are the pictures I have been taking,” he said.

By this time, both his daughter and son were struggling to breathe. They had developed respiratory complications and his daughter had been hospitalised.

“Doctors will not specify on what the problem exactly is ….but they would give an analysis of the patient when she was being treated…if you look at the results that came out for both my daughter and my son,….the results were on……which was chest related problem,” he said.

“He (the doctor) asked me to check with the school of any of the children have had similar chest related problems….by then my daughter was not schooling…it was only my son….within that week, he was hospitalised and it was on his birthday… we investigated through the school and found out that there was no case of a student with similar symptoms….obviously, this is not an ordinary issue, there’s something that prompted it. Thats what we were told,” Nazir added.

This was in October 2018. It had taken more than a year of protests and complaints on social media, before NEMA could begin taking any action.

According to court documents, on October 2, 2018, NEMA inspected Endmor Steel Millers and instructed the facility to stop further air pollution.

On the 4th of that month, NEMA was back and found out that the factory was still polluting in spite of the earlier directive.

But shockingly, NEMA went ahead to issue Endmor Steel Mills with what is known as a Stack Emissions License that very day which essentially allowed them to continue releasing gases and particles into the air.

NEMA insists the license had strict conditions attached to it and that it would be implemented only after the company had complied.

Many residents here however wondered what made the environment regulator think that the company that ignored its initial notice was going to comply this time round.

On October 27, 2018, NEMA arranged a  meeting between Endmor Steel Millers and residents of the neighboring estates.

Mitigation measures were agreed upon but according to the regulator, it didn’t work: Endmor Steel Millers ignored every part of the agreement.

In January of 2019, environmental inspectors from NEMA Headquarters inspected the facility again and in their observation, Endmor Steel Millers had installed an appropriate air pollution control and air passing through its cleaning system was within legal limits.

But it turned out that not all emissions were being captured in their observations and a huge plume of dark smoke and whitish smoke continued to jet out into the adjacent neighborhood, an indication of significant air pollution even to the naked eye rule assessment.

It was marked in the report as the major problem with the operations of the facility: this was on January 24, 2019.

A week later, on February, 4, NEMA ordered Endmor Steel mills to cease operations: “Because of the serious environmental and health risk posed by your facility to the surrounding community, the authority considers that your current operations are contravening article 42 of the constitution of Kenya which guarantees everyone a right to clean and healthy environment.”

A day later, the facility requested for re-opening but the application was declined. At this point, Nazir’s daughter was becoming critically ill.

She had once again been hospitalised at MP Shah Hospital in Nairobi: so weak were her lungs that she needed oxygen supplementation. Complaints to NEMA via email had also escalated.

Endmor Steel Millers owned by one Paul Watoro had already rushed to the National Environment Tribunal to have the NEMA order reversed; a request that was granted ex parte, that is without the participation of the other parties to this dispute.

The ruling of the tribunal on February 8, 2019 stated: “Pending the hearing and determination of the application dated February, 2019 inter-partes, the order of the respondent contained in the respondents letter dated 4th of January 2019 and served on February 2019 is hereby stayed, such orders to last until the next hearing….. the inter-partes hearing – involving the other stakeholders, was set for 7 March 2019.”

At the beginning of April 2019, Nazir Hakada’s daughter was hospitalized once again: her lungs had collapsed and so she had to be placed on a ventilator.

“On the 6th, I was releasing my son and admitting my daughter with the same chest problems….when we took her there she was literally chocking, she was coughing…they had to put her in the ICU….and she stayed there for less than 48 hours and she was gone….results came out that it was chest related problem and nothing could be done,” Nazir said.

On April 9, 2019 Nazir paid the ultimate price: it is a day that she says will never escape his mind.

“When I lost her, it totally took me to a different direction….till today if you meet with community members who know me, they will tell you he is a changed man….I feel like I have lost my drive…..I was a very active biker, I have lost that,” he adds.

Having lost his child, Nazir Hakada was enjoined in the case between Endmor Steel Millers and NEMA as the first interested party.

On the third day of May 2019, the tribunal ruled that Endmor Steel Millers desist from any further pollution. The tribunal demanded an emissions report from Endmor.

The hearing of the main appeal was then pushed to June 27 and 28, 2019.

” I would like them to bring there kids here…I would like the owner and we rent a place for them….and we ask them stay here for a month …expose your children to the conditions we are going through. We have a 100 plus children here,” Nazir lamented.

The hearing was postponed again and NEMA was ordered to procure fresh air quality assessment using an independent laboratory. SGS Kenya was contracted.

According to the report, the period of monitoring was between September 23-28, 2019. The air pollutants measured included sulphur dioxide SO2, nitrogen dioxide NO2, hydrogen sulphide H2S, PM2.5, PM10 and volatile organic compounds VOCs.

During this period, machines from Code for Africa were also online and recorded some level of pollution as a plume white smoke escaped through the uncontrolled area.

Given the sensitivity of the matter, the survey was to be conducted and results made available within a short – time but contrary to expectations, the results took several months to come out.

And by the time the tribunal was sitting on February 4, 2020, the report was not yet ready. The SGS report would only be availed to the tribunal on February 19, 2020 with NEMA notifying the tribunal of its intention to cross – examine SGS Kenya.

The report was supposed to form the basis of the hearing on March30,  2020 but it never did.  As the report was being tabled before the tribunal, Citizen TV and Code for Africa did a mobile survey at the environment surrounding the factory.

The missions were still within recommended limits at this time: PM 2.5, which measures very fine particles, was reading 12.4 micrograms per cubic meter against the recommended 25 micrograms per cubic meter…..and PM 10, the measure for larger particles, was 46.6 micrograms per cubic meter against the recommended 50.

As the sun went further to the West, things started to change: emissions from the factory started to be visible.

By the time we were doing a second reading, P.M 2.5 had now reached 36.5 micrograms per cubic meter, more the 50% above the allowable limit while P.M 10 had hit   99.2 micrograms per cubic meter, almost double what is considered safe.

As the sun further settled in the West PM 2.5 reading was now 115 micrograms per cubic meter, 5 times the set limit….PM 10 was 163 micrograms per cubic meter against the limit of 50……, just over three times the allowable levels.

The following day, Citizen TV drove back to Syokimau during the night: it was around 8pm and it was not pleasant at all.

First there was too much noise from the factory: regular loud bangs were heard from the facility. From Bustani Villas it would be like one was actually inside the facility with smoke escaping from all corners of the vast facility.

According to the SGS Kenya monitoring report which had been made available to the tribunal, the air quality monitoring they conducted between September 23-28, 2019, the concentrations of SO2, NO2, H2S were within the limits stipulated.

But on the other pollutants involving finer particles that is usually determined by measures known as PM 2.5 and PM 10, the report curiously claimed that the brief given to it by NEMA did not provide for any limits.

Citizen TV asked NEMA why they didn’t furnish SGS with measures of such limits, that are important in regulating the amount of particles going into the atmosphere.

The agency responded saying: “NEMA undertakes due diligence before designating a laboratory to perform emission measurements including assessing its capacity and knowledge of the national environmental laws and regulations which provide the emission limits for these parameters in question”

According to the regulations the permissible limits for PM 2.5 is 25 micro grams per cubic metre and PM 10 is 50 micro grams per cubic metre.

In spite of the contradictions, the SGS report still demonstrated that the PM 2.5 and PM 10 were way above the permissible limits.

Results from machines mounted by Code for Africa for the period show significant pollution especially during the evening hours….

The highest levels were captured on September 26 where PM 10 levels went up to 280 micrograms per cubic meter more than 5 times the set limits.

That evening, PM 2.5 Levels rose to over 100 micrograms per cubic meter, 4 times higher than the set limit of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

SGS Kenya in response to a question we emailed them maintained that the report only measure the natural air in the neighborhood usually known as ambient air and that it was yet to give a stack emission report, one measuring the contents of the actual emissions leaving the factory.

Were it not for the postponement of the March 2020 tribunal sitting, then the report SGS Kenya claims is incomplete would have been used to a make a decision for a matter that directly touches on people’s health.

SGS Kenya did not respond to the question on how long they intend to take to have a complete report and yet a  full tribunal hearing is set for July.

Nancy Githaiga, Head of Policy Research and Innovation at the World Wide Fund for Nature told Citizen TV: “The PM 10 are the bigger particles like dusts…so those ones you can even feel them in your eyes…. That is not as unsafe as the PM 2.5…that is dangerous because it gets into your blood stream….even for children their internal organs can not mature as they should ….it weakens the immune system because it weakens the lungs.”

“What is interesting or sad about this case is that I see someone without any protective gear….this is a compony either smelting steel or something like that… so what you would expect is someone with the right protective gear wether it’s masks whether it’s helmets…wether its gloves on their hands…that’s the basic minimum,” she adds.

“What I see is operations at night…I don’t know why we would have operations at night? Is it so that we can emit easily and without questions? When it’s also night, the air is much cooler as opposite to the day then the temperatures are high …so at night it means the emissions will just fall in the almost immediate neighborhood because its cooler,” Ms. Githaiga noted.

She concludes: “Usually the chimneys the way they are designed and you see they are usually high up …you expect that once the smoke gets in, it burns and the temperatures rise that by the time it gets high up then its moderate in terms of its toxicity….but when smoke comes out of a building just like that, the toxicity is quite high……. Maybe the chimneys don’t work at all.”

As the case drags on at the tribunal, residents allege that Endmor Steel Mills has continued to ignore the directive of the panel that required the facility to stop further pollution.

Citizen TV asked NEMA if they have continued to monitor the factory in terms of pollution and adherence to the directive of tribunal and their response was: “NEMA cannot intervene but still in the context of NEMA, the facility should be closed”.

The authority was simply accepting that Endmor Steel Millers was still polluting the environment but the matter was out of their hands.

Under the registration of businesses, Endmor Steel Millers has 4 directors: Priscilla Wanjiru Njige, James Gichu Muchiri, Robert Gichu Matheri and Paul Watoro Gichu.

Gabriel Waithaka Kiama is only listed as a shareholder.

Citizen TV contacted Paul Watoro who happens to be the company’s chairman. “Mine is to make sure that I am not violating my neighbours rights. Come to my place during daytime and night – time ….you come and view by yourself. Don’t look for me…just come to the factory anytime… we are not working during night time now….we are only working during daytime,” he said on phone.

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Story By Enock Sikolia
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