With their livelihoods and land ruined by decades of oil spills, people in two Nigerian communities are appealing to a British court to hold Shell responsible.
The multinational conglomerate, which operates under the Shell Oil Company umbrella, has operated pumps and pipelines in the African country for decades, and the environmental impact has been devastating, people in Ogale and the Bille Kingdom of Nigeria say.
Years of accidents and oil spills have soaked the ground and local bodies of water with oil, destroying swamps, creeks and mangroves and forcing local people to drink and use polluted water, according to the United Nations.
Clean-up efforts will take the better part of two decades with cost estimates of more than $1 billion, the U.N.'s environment program said, describing it as “the most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken."
Now, leaders from Ogale and Bille have taken their case to the U.K.'s High Court with the help of British law firm Leigh Day, arguing that Shell Oil Company and its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, are responsible for the rampant pollution, The Independent reported.
His Royal Highness Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, king of the tribal Ogale community, testified in a London courtroom on Nov. 24, holding up a bottle of polluted water to drive his point home.
"The last resort for the people of Ogale is the British court," Okpabi said.
That's because, if the British court rules that the issue should be decided in Nigerian courts, then the locals impacted by the pollution say Shell is unlikely to be held responsible, and that any verdict could take decades.
There is a "real risk" that the communities would "not obtain substantial justice if they are required to litigate their claims in Nigeria," said Richard Hermer, an attorney representing the fishermen, farmers and others who say their livelihoods have been devastated by the oil spills.
In addition to its attempts to have the case transferred to Nigeria, Shell's legal team has also argued that the company is not responsible for the oil pollution, claiming pipeline sabotage, illegal refining and collateral damage to the pipelines from conflicts between warring factions caused the majority of the pollution.
Shell absolved itself of responsibility in an internal report, claiming external factors outside the company's control created the vast majority of oil spills.
But a 2013 report by Amnesty International blasted the company's internal investigations, calling them "nothing more than dodgy dossiers" featuring "very subjective, misleading and downright false" information, notes The Independent.
Most of the oil pollution was a result of Shell's own negligence, Amnesty International argued, accusing the company of poor maintenance and allowing pipelines to corrode.
Compensation for the damage hinges on whether the company is found responsible, the report notes; if the court sides with Shell and finds the pollution was caused by pipeline sabotage and collateral damage, then Shell is not responsible for paying for clean-up efforts or compensating villagers for the damage to their lives and jobs.
But if the plaintiffs can prove the company was negligible, then it will be on the hook for those costs.
This is not the first time Shell has defended its Nigerian operations in a European court. In 2013, a Dutch court found the company responsible for pollution in the Nigerian Delta, ordering it to pay damages.