Over thirteen thousand residents from two Nigerian communities are seeking damages from Shell in the High Court in London, calling for the energy giant to clean up residual oil and compensate devastating environmental damage.
The claim from eleven thousand three hundred and seventeen people and seventeen institutions in the Niger Delta area of Ogale, a rural community of around fourty tnhousand situated in Ogoniland, was filed last week, according to Leigh Day, the U.K. law firm representing the plaintiffs.
The action follows individual claims from two thousand three hundred and thirty five people in the smaller Nigerian community of Bille, which were submitted to the High Court in 2015.
The combined thirteen thousand six hundred and fifty two claims are asking Shell to take responsibility for the loss of their livelihoods, saying their ability to farm and fish has largely been destroyed.
The Bille and Ogale communities, according to the statement “have been in a legal battle with the company since 2015 and as at 2021, the UK Supreme Court ruled that there was a good arguable case that Shell plc, the UK parent company, was liable for systemic pollution caused by its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC”.
The statement further revealed that, “ The severe oil pollution in the communities is ongoing and no clean-up has taken place”. Instead, “there have been 55 new oil spills in the Ogale community since September 2011”.
The claims provide detail about the nature of the harm suffered by the residents of Ogale and Bille communities.
“In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland reported, after a three-year detailed study, how the Ogoni people were exposed to severe oil contamination on a daily basis, impacting their water sources, air quality, and farmland. UNEP recommended that urgent steps should be taken to ensure the largest terrestrial clean-up operation in history and found that there was “an immediate danger to public health”. Shockingly, 12 years on, the communities remain polluted, no clean-up has occurred and their residents are still drinking from poisoned wells”.
“In Ogale, the emergency clean water system has not functioned for the past five years. The majority of the residents do not have access to clean water given that the groundwater and aquifer under the Ogale community is severely polluted”.
It could also be gleaned from the statement that the people of the riverine communities are asking for Shell to compensate them for their loss as their ability to farm and fish has been rendered useless.
“In Bille, the community’s drinking water is also polluted and the oil has killed most of the fish and shellfish in the rivers, leaving Bille’s fishing population without a source of food or income. This has caused a fundamental shift in the way of life of the Bille community; people who were previously heavily focused on fishing are no longer able to fish”.
“Now the group register has been filed at court, the next stage in the case is for a case management hearing to be set in Spring 2023, ahead of the full trial which is likely to occur the following year”, the statement further revealed.
Among other things, in its defense against the claims, Shell is arguing that it has no legal liability for the pollution in the communities contending that the communities have no legal standing to enforce clean up against Shell.
Shell is also saying that many of the specific spills in Ogale and Bille took place more than five years before the claims were brought, and that despite the lack of clean up the communities are barred from seeking compensation for those spills, and “that shell cannot be held accountable for any spills caused by ‘bunkering’ regardless of whether it could foresee the bunkering and failed to take steps to prevent it”.
It is basing its argument that the parent company cannot be liable for any pollution arising from SPDC’s operations in relation to a Supreme Court judgement in Okpabi v. Shell.
This has raised concerns that if such a legal argument becomes successful, it will have far reaching consequences with the implications that oil impacted communities in Nigeria will be unable to seek clean-up of their environments and claim compensation for loss of livelihoods unless they are able to prove that the damage was caused by operational failure within five years of the date of issuing the claim.
“For most Nigerian communities living with legacy pollution, that would essentially deprive them of any legal remedy against oil companies”.
Disclosing further what is at stake, Leigh Day stated that “Shell announced in 2021 that it plans to leave the Niger Delta and to sell its onshore oil fields and assets after 80 years of highly profitable operations. However, Shell has not explained whether it plans to address the widespread and systemic pollution to Nigerian communities caused by its operations over many years”.
Daniel Leader,a partner at the Leigh Day law firm stated that the case raises salient questions about the liabilities of oil companies.
“This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies. 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. 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.”
Another partner at the law firm, Matthew Renshaw stated that instead of engaging with the communities, “Shell has fought them tirelessly through the courts for the past seven years”.
“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. 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?”