Nigeria oil spills: Shell rejects liability claim

Nigerian farmers and their legal team at the law courts in The Hague. 11 Oct 2012 The Nigerian farmers and their legal team argue that Shell could have prevented the spills

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has rejected claims by four Nigerian farmers that it should pay compensation for damage to their land.

The farmers are suing the company in a civil court in The Hague, claiming oil spills ruined their livelihoods.

Shell's lawyers told the court it could not be held liable because most spills were caused by criminal damage.

They said repairs were hard to carry out because of insecurity in the Niger Delta.

Shell lawyer Jan de Bie Leuveling Tjeenk told the court that sabotage and oil theft were widespread in the region.

The case is being brought against Shell by the farmers and the Dutch arm of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Shell's Allard Castelein blamed "sabotage and oil theft" for the spills

If their case is successful it could pave the way for thousands of other compensation claims, says the BBC's Anna Holligan in The Hague.

It is the first time a Dutch multinational has been taken to a civil court in the Netherlands in connection with damage caused abroad.

The case is linked to spills in Goi, Ogoniland; Oruma in Bayelsa State and a third in Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State.

'Sabotage'

Earlier, Channa Samkalden, lawyer for the Nigerians, told the court that Shell had failed to maintain its pipelines, clean up leaks and prevent pollution.

"Shell knew for a long time that the pipeline was damaged but didn't do anything. They could have stopped the leaks," she said.

Judges are now considering the evidence and a ruling is expected early next year.

Ogoni Oil: Troubled History

map
  • 1958: Oil struck in Ogoniland. It lies in what is now one of Nigeria's wealthiest states. Most Nigerians live on less than $2 a day
  • 1993: Large-scale protests by Ogoni people over neglect by government and Shell, led by Mosop group co-founded by activist Ken Saro-Wiwa
  • 1993: Shell pulls out of Ogoniland
  • 1994: Four community leaders killed. Mosop leaders including Ken Saro-Wiwa arrested
  • 1995: Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others executed by military government, sparking international outrage
  • 2009: Shell reaches $15.5m (£9.7m) settlement with families to stop case accusing it of complicity in Saro-Wiwa's death and other human rights abuses
  • 2008-09: Shell accepts liability for two spills in Ogoniland
  • 2011: UN report says it could take Ogoniland 30 years to recover fully from damage caused by years of oil spills

Speaking to the BBC before the hearing, one of the plaintiffs, Friday Alfred Akpan from the village of Ikot Ada Udo, said the oil leaks in his village had badly damaged his 47 fish ponds.

"Fish died as a result of the oil spill, making it difficult for me to live and put my children through school."

He told the BBC's Newsday programme he wanted compensation for the loss, and for Shell to clean up the spill.

Shell official Allard Castelein told the BBC the spills in question "were all caused by sabotage".

"I mean, there's video evidence. There's signed testimonies by joint investigation teams that are constituted of the local municipality, the company, the government."

In a statement, the company said: "The real tragedy of the Niger Delta is the widespread and continual criminal activity, including sabotage, theft and illegal refining, that causes the vast majority of oil spills.

"It is this criminality which all organisations with an interest in Nigeria's future should focus their efforts on highlighting and addressing."

Shell says it has cleaned up pollution at the three locations in question and this has been certified by relevant Nigerian authorities.

Militant groups have for years waged a violent campaign in the Niger Delta, demanding that local people see more of the benefits of the region's oil wealth - there is also a huge problem of oil theft in the area.

Last year, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme said that over half a century of oil operation in the region, by firms including Shell, had caused deeper damage to the Ogoniland area of the Niger Delta than earlier estimated.

The company has accepted responsibility for two specific spills in the region in 2008, saying it would settle the case under Nigerian law.

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