A unit of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Europe’s largest oil company, was sued in Britain by 11,000 Nigerians who say their land, rivers and wetlands were spoiled by two “massive” spills in the Niger River delta in 2008.
The lawsuit against Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was filed in London today by residents of the coastal Bodo community after talks failed to produce a deal, the group’s law firm Leigh Day & Co. said in a statement. While Shell admits liability for the leaks, it claims local people spilled most of the oil.
“The spills have caused extensive and long-lasting devastation to the claimant’s lands and fishing waters and have a profoundly detrimental impact on the life of the community,” the lawyer for the Nigerians, Martyn Day, said in court papers.
The lawsuit, claiming a leak of 500,000 barrels, comes two months after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said he would seek compensation from Shell, based in The Hague, for the country’s worst offshore spill in more than a decade -- a leak in December of nearly 40,000 barrels of oil at the company’s Bonga field off Nigeria’s coast.
Before and after the Bodo leaks, local people spilled oil during theft from the pipeline and sabotaged it to exaggerate the environmental damage, Shell spokesman Jonathan French said in a phone interview. The people have the “misguided belief that more oil spilled equals more compensation,” he said.
‘Lies and Deceit’
Patrick Naagbanton, who is from Bodo and runs a non-governmental organization dedicated to protection of the environment and human rights, said Shell makes the same claims of theft and sabotage whenever there’s a spill or explosion.
“I’m used to their lies and deceit,” Naagbanton, who now lives in nearby Port Harcourt, Nigeria, said in a phone call today. “This is what they say about a lot of communities in the Niger delta and beyond, wherever their facility has destroyed the environment of the local people.”
A joint team of Shell investigators and the Nigerian oil-spill regulator Nosdra visited the site and determined the total volume of oil spilled was about 4,000 barrels, French said. Lawyers for the townspeople said that amount was spilling from the pipeline nearly every day during one of the leaks that lasted two months.
“We clearly disagree with that assessment,” French said.
The two Bodo spills leaked oil onto 90 square kilometers of land, mangroves, creeks and streams and affected a coastline similar in size to that of BP Plc’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the law firm said. The human-rights group Amnesty International said in November that Shell should pay $1 billion to start cleaning the environment around Bodo.
The Bodo community has about 49,000 people in 35 villages and most of its people are subsistence fishermen and farmers, the law firm said. While Shell stopped oil extraction in the area in 1994, the company’s pipelines still traverse it, according to the complaint.
Shell continued pumping oil for weeks after learning of the spill, “causing increasing devastation to Bodo’s environment,” Day said in the statement. The pipeline should have been shut immediately, he said.
Shell was unable to shut the pipeline quickly because its workers were physically blocked by local people from entering the area, French said. Shell admitted liability in late 2008 and early 2009 -- as soon as the company confirmed the two spills were caused by operational failings, he said.
The Bodo waterway at the center of the U.K. case recovered from a “minor” leak in 2003 and a larger spill in 1986, according to the complaint. The creek was “rich in fauna” and “essentially free of hydrocarbons” before the latest incidents, it said.
Nigeria, with daily production of 2.39 million barrels, was Africa’s largest oil producer last year, according to the country’s Petroleum Ministry. The west African nation is the fifth-biggest source of U.S. crude imports.
In a separate case, Shell asked the U.S. Supreme Court last month to rule the company can’t be sued by Nigerians seeking damages for torture and murders committed by the national government in the early 1990s.