A group of 11,000 Nigerians from 15 villages has launched a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell at London's High Court, claiming that the company's slow response to two spills in Bodo, Ogoniland - which is part of the Niger Delta - in 2008 destroyed the environment and their livelihoods.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and a legal order for Shell, which has one of its head offices in the UK, to clean the polluted waterways and marshlands of 35 villages around the town of Bodo.
Talks between Shell and the London lawyers representing the claimants broke down last week, after the two parties failed to agree on how much oil was spilt and how much compensation should be given.
"They [Shell] made an offer and the community quite rightly said this is ridiculously low," said Martyn Day, of the London law firm Leigh Day, who is leading legal proceedings.
Shell blames sabotage
Shell has admitted to the two oil spills, saying that 4,000 barrels of oil were spilt in Bodo in 2008 because of operational failures and that a clean-up was completed in 2009. It says that since then, more oil has been spilt due to sabotage and oil theft, known as "bunkering."
"Our clean-up teams were able to deal with the initial operational spills, but subsequently they have been prevented by local communities from reaching sites that were re-impacted by this illegal activity," Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of SPDC, the joint venture between Nigeria's state oil firm, EPNL, Agip and Shell, said in a letter to the Financial Times on Wednesday.
In a statement on Friday, Shell blamed the threat of a lawsuit for "preventing us from gaining access to the area and cleaning up the pollution caused by others since 2009."
But Day said experts had put the amount spilt because of Shell's two operational failures at 600,000 barrels, and that any bunkering that took place in the area would account for no more than 1 percent of that figure.
Human rights group Amnesty International in November blamed Shell for spilling 280,000 barrels in Bodo and called on it to pay 750 million euros ($1 billion) to clean up the Niger Delta.
Some environmentalists estimate that as much as 2.1 billion liters (550 million gallons) of oil have spilled in Ogoniland during more than 50 years of production, a rate that compares to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year. An estimated 11 million gallons were released during the massive 1989 spill in Alaska.
Crude production in Ogoniland stopped in 1993, but pipelines and flow stations operated by Shell and the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation still run through villages and fields.
The British High Court will use Nigerian law to rule on the lawsuit filed on Friday, if no pre-trial settlement can be reached.
ng/dfm (AP, Reuters, AFP)