Nigerian farmers and fishers bring oil pollution fight against Shell to London

The Ogale and Bille people of Nigeria are suing Royal Dutch Shell in a London court over claims of oil pollution in their local waterways, which harms their livelihood.

Frank Augstein/AP/File
The King of Ogale, King Okpab, points to bottles with water samples of the Ogale area in Nigeria as he speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in London on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. Britain’s High Court will begin hearing lawsuits on Tuesday filed by the Ogale and Bille people alleging that decades of oil spills have fouled the water and destroyed the lives of thousands of fishermen and farmers in the Niger River Delta.

The Royal Dutch Shell company will face the Ogale and Bille people of Nigeria in a British High Court on Tuesday over claims of water pollution.

The two primarily farming and fishing communities inhabit Ogoniland, an area in the oil-rich southern Niger River Delta that, in the past, has seen many oil spills and major protests from local community members who find their drinking water contaminated with hydrocarbons and benzene, which is widely thought to be a carcinogen.

"Let the shareholders of Shell who are residents of the advanced world, like Britain, let them see a representative of a kingdom that is being destroyed for them to have money," Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, an Ogale leader, told the Associated Press. "That's blood money."

The latest dispute comes after a successful and similar lawsuit filed against Shell last year. It was a victory that activists and Leigh Day, the law firm representing the Ogale and Bille people, viewed as significant, potentially setting a precedent for villagers to take on a multinational company in a foreign court. Given that Nigeria is heavily reliant on oil revenues, locals are concerned that litigation in their country may be biased against them because their challenges might be seen as threatening the nation's interests.

"My system cannot give me justice," Mr. Okpabi said, explaining that their decision to file in Shell's home base was because they found Nigerian courts too corrupt. "There is only one place that can give me justice. That is why I am here."

Between 1970 and 2000, more than 7,000 spills were reported in Ogoniland, with 1970 seeing thousands of gallons spilled on farmlands and rivers. Two large oil spills occurred in 2008 and 2009, with the latter spilling 14,000 metric tons of crude oil into the delta, according to data compiled by The Guardian. A 2011 United Nations Environmental Program report found wells in the area with levels of benzene more than 900 times the World Health Organization guideline and hydrocarbon contamination at least 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard.

Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd., Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, has denied the charges. The company has produced no oil or gas in the region since 1993, and contends that most of the spills are the result of crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage, and illegal refining. It has said it will argue in court that the case should be litigated in Nigeria, not in the United Kingdom.

"If the Claimants' lawyers are correct as to the existence of this novel duty of care, (Shell) and many other parents of multinational groups will be liable to the many hundreds of millions of people around the world with whom their subsidiaries come into contact in the ordinary course of their various operations," the company said in its court argument. "That would constitute a radical if not historic expansion of the law and open the floodgates to litigation on an unprecedented scale."

But environmental degradation in the area as a result of oil activities is fraught with tension and violence. In the 1990s, protests by the Ogoni people met a tragic end when the military government sent troops to clamp down on opposition. Ken Saro-Wiwa, an author and campaigner, was executed along with eight others under charges of incitement to murder.

Despite the protests succeeding in convincing Shell to stop production in the area, the issue of a cleanup has met with criticism, protests, and delays by the government. In 2006, armed groups sabotaged pipelines and kidnapped company staff. The United Nations Environmental Program has said that it will be one of the world's most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean ups ever undertaken, possibly taking up to 25 years for full restoration.

"The people of Ogoniland have paid a high price for the success of Nigeria's oil industry, enduring a toxic and polluted environment for decades," UNEP's executive director, Achim Steiner, said in a press release.

In the meantime, lawsuits seek compensation continue to play out in court, with the latest success occurring in January 2015. Shell finally agreed to pay $83.5 million to the Bodo community, which was represented by London law firm Leigh Day, for oil spill damage caused in 2008 and 2009. The Shell subsidiary said then that they've always accepted responsibility for two "deeply regrettable operational spills," but the "real tragedy" is still oil theft and illegal refining.

On the other hand, Leigh Day said the win will "open the door" for "four or five other cases" that they have been asked to look at.

"The community can start to live again. For the last few years people here have had no income at all. It has been very painful. We cannot start fishing again but we start business and begin to trade," Chief Sylvester Kogbara, the chairman of the Bodo Council of Chiefs and Elders, told The Guardian last year. "There is some optimism again."

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