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Victims of oil spill in Nigeria demand justice, compensation



Bille and Ogale, two oil-producing communities in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region have been living for decades with the devastating effects of oil spills caused by Shell, the global fossil fuel giant.

Now, over 13,000 residents of two communities have filed a lawsuit against Shell for oil spills which they say have affected their livelihoods, health and way of life.

On Jan. 27, the residents filed individual claims at the High Court in London against Shell, demanding justice and compensation for environmental degradation caused by the energy giant in the region.

Ogale has a total population of 40,000 people while Billie’s population is 15,000. The two communities are asking for a clean-up of their land and compensation for their loss of livelihoods as their ability to farm and fish has been largely affected, according to Leigh Day, the U.K. law firm representing the communities.

The law firm said in addition to the individual claims, there are also two representative actions, one for each community, which seek compensation for damage to communally owned property.

“This remedy would benefit all members of the communities living with the chronic pollution, even where they have not sustained individual losses,” it said.

“This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies,” said Daniel Leader, partner at Leigh Day. “It appears that Shell is seeking to leave the Niger Delta free of any legal obligation to address the environmental devastation caused by oil spills from its infrastructure over many decades.”

Leader said at a time when the world is focused on the just transition, “this raises profound questions about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.”

In 2021, Shell announced plans to leave the Niger Delta and sell its onshore oilfields and assets after 80 years of operations.

Matthew Renshaw, partner at law firm Leigh Day said “the question must be asked whether Shell simply plans to leave the Niger Delta without addressing the environmental disaster which has unfolded under its watch?”

Shell is certainly not alone. The activities of major global oil companies such as the U.S.-based Chevron Corp, Italy’s Agip, Exxon Mobil and the Nigerian subsidiary of France’s Elf Aquitaine, now TotalFinaElf, have left waterways polluted and farmlands destroyed and water sources contaminated.

Most communities in the region largely depend on farming and fishing to make a living. But contamination of lands and water sources by these oil companies has left residents without any source of livelihood.

“We can no longer go to farm and fishing is not an option because the river is polluted,” said Ben Phillip, a resident of the region whose hometown faced oil spills five years ago. “Our water is filled with oil.”

Phillip says his community has been made uninhabitable by decades of oil spills and the oil companies still operate without consideration to the damage they are causing.

“When you go to the farm, the crops are damaged and crops cannot be produced because of pollution,” he said. “This is completely unfair and we want an end to it.”

This is not the first legal action against Shell. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by residents of oil-producing communities and environmental activists against the global oil giant over its activities in Nigeria.

On January 20, 2021, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) was liable for oil pollution in several farming and fishing communities in the Niger Delta region.

Besides holding the Nigerian subsidiary responsible, the Court of Appeals in The Hague ruled that Shell, which is based in Holland, had breached its “duty of care” in its operations abroad. It ordered the subsidiary to pay compensation to the farmers and begin cleanup of the polluted areas.

The two villages covered by the Dutch court ruling, Oruma and Goi, in the Nigerian state of Rivers, have suffered for years from the environmental impact of the pollution. Shell claimed that the spills were caused by sabotage, but the court rejected that argument, saying the company had not provided enough evidence to support its claim.

A ruling in a third case involving an oil well in the village of Ikot Ada Udo is pending. In that case, the spill was caused by sabotage, but the court has not determined whether Shell can be held liable and has requested clarification about the extent of the pollution caused by the spill.

Details of the compensation in the cases of Oruma and Goi were not disclosed.

For the past 13 years, four Nigerian farmers who have become environmental activists from the region, have been representing the affected communities and leading efforts to get justice for those affected by the pollution. With support from the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth Netherlands, the four launched their lawsuit against Shell in 2008.

The four have sought compensation for damage and loss of livelihoods that they say they suffered from spills of crude oil from a well and pipelines. They demanded that Shell clean up the contamination more thoroughly and take measures to prevent a recurrence. The court also ordered Shell to build a better warning system in the affected villages to alert residents to possible leaks.

“Finally, there is some justice for the Nigerian people suffering the consequences of Shell’s oil,” Eric Dooh of Goi, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement from Friends of the Earth Netherlands. “It is a bittersweet victory, since two of the plaintiffs, including my father, did not live to see the end of this trial. But this verdict brings hope for the future of the people in the Niger Delta.”

Read also:Shell agrees to pay $15m for oil spill in Niger Delta communities

In the same statement, Rachel Kennerley, climate campaign manager at Friends of the Earth Netherlands, called the court ruling “a fantastic victory.”

“For too long, companies like Shell have been shirking their responsibility for the impact of the dirty industry they push on communities around the world,” she said. “Thirteen years of fighting for justice has finally turned this around, and today’s judgment is a wakeup call for polluting companies and governments everywhere.”

She also called for the British government to end its investment in fossil fuel projects overseas “unless it wants to face legal challenges.”

Between 2008 and 2009, a series of pipeline spills by Shell, left Bodo, an oil community in the region, flowing in oil.

Courtesy: Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN)

Shell initially offered a $4000 compensation to the community. With support from Amnesty International, the community took legal action against Royal Dutch Shell. The case was settled out of court in 2015 for the equivalent of about $36.6 million, with part going to the community and the rest divided among the community’s residents.

The decades of pollution have led to growing protests and the rise of militant groups opposing oil companies in the region. This has also resulted in a series of abductions of foreign oil workers for ransom and bloody clashes with security forces. Indigenous communities, landless farmers, women, trade unions and fishers whose livelihoods have been affected have often joined the protests.

Phillip wants the oil companies to be held accountable for the environmental damage they cause to the oil producing communities.

“It is not just enough to pay some money to victims, what about the impact on communities and livelihoods which will remain there forever,” he said.

Oil pollution in the region not only affects livelihoods, but has also been traced to have long-lasting health challenges, especially on maternal health and infants.

A recent study on exposure to oil pollution and maternal outcomes, sampled 1720 pregnant women between 18-45 years old at a gestational age of less than 17 weeks, with high and low exposure to oil pollution in the region.

The study, which followed the women from pregnancy to the point of delivery, showed that women in high exposure areas had a higher incidence of premature rupture of membrane, cesarean section, and postpartum hemorrhage compared to women in areas with low exposure to oil pollution.

Five years ago, a study on the impact of oil spills in the region showed that infants in the Niger Delta region were twice as likely to die before they reach a month old if mothers lived near the scene of an oil spill before conceiving. The study further suggested there were 11,000 premature deaths a year in the region.

Renshaw of Leigh Day said “instead of engaging with these communities, Shell has fought them tirelessly through the courts for the past seven years,” he adds that “at a time when Shell is making unprecedented profits it is high time that it addressed the ongoing pollution caused to these communities by its operations.”

Following years of oil spills and pressure from residents and advocacy groups, plans for decontamination started. A U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) report commissioned by the Nigerian government found that pollution was deeper and more extensive than previously thought after an agency team examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipeline rights-of-way, analyzed 4,000 soil and water samples, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and held community meetings attended by more than 23,000 people.

The report, which took 14 months to complete and was released in August 2011, proposed a project that would involve cleaning up the contaminated water, wells, soil and mangrove swamps, and establishing a soil management center with hundreds of mini-centers that would treat contaminated soil, creating hundreds of jobs.

The report projected that a thorough cleanup would take 25 to 30 years and proposed that Shell and the Nigerian government share the cost, which was estimated at some $1 billion for the first five years.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the government planned to begin the cleanup recommended by the UNEP report.

Even though work was started that year in the village of Bodo for instance, progress has been slow. The agency overseeing the cleanup, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, says it has received only $180 million of the $1 billion supposedly earmarked for the cleanup.

Residents of the affected communities say they doubt that the government will ensure that the cleanup is completed. Questions have been raised about the qualifications of the coordinating agency’s subcontractors, and civil society groups have accused the agency of corruption and contract scams.

Meanwhile, oil pollution continues in the Niger Delta region, leaving much of the region uninhabitable. This has led to small-scale migration for community residents who have left their homes and livelihoods and moved to other areas with less impact.

Nigeria runs an oil-dependent economy and environmental experts like Thomas Okocha, said the impact and damage from the contamination will still remain with the communities.

“This won’t go away anytime soon,” he said. “The government relies on oil to run the economy and provide infrastructure. So, it would be difficult to cut ties with the oil producing companies since they also make money from it.”

The solution, according to Okocha, is for residents of affected communities to move to areas with low exposure to oil pollution.

However, this may be a challenge for Phillip and thousands of other residents like him who have nowhere else to go.

“I was born here and have been living here all my life,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go?” he said.

By Patrick Egwu

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