the water Ogale, a rural community in Nigeria, is so toxic and polluted with oil that it is brown and smells of sulfur. Children and families get sick trying to bathe or stay hydrated. In Beale, a fishing community of about 45 islands completely surrounded by water, there are no fish left. Oily water seeps into people’s homes and lacks money without a source of income. Signs that once warned people of the dangers of chronic pollution are covered in rust.
These Niger Delta communities have been facing pollution caused by shale for decades, destroying their health and livelihoods. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Program reported that threats to public health warranted “urgent action”. At the time, the cleanup process would have taken 30 years if it had started immediately.
It never happened. Shell refused to cooperate, and the situation worsened, with 55 oil spills in the past 12 years. Amnesty International has called the Niger Delta region “one of the most polluted places on earth”.
On January 27, 11,300 residents of Ogall — which has an estimated population of 40,000 — and 17 local organizations, including churches and schools, filed individual claims against Shell in London’s High Court. With the community’s existing claims on the bill, this brings the total number against the oil company to over 13,650.
Ogale and Beale natives are responsible for environmental destruction, death and repeated outbreaks of disease. According to a study published in 2017, children in the Niger Delta, for example, are twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers are near oil wells.
Local leaders are outraged and outraged by this. “As we speak, oil is spilling in my community every day, people are dying,” Ogale community leader Raja Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi told The Intercept.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t drink water. It’s like we’re living in the desert, while we’re living in the water.”
In 2016, a year after the initial legal case, Okpabi flew to London for a High Court hearing with a plastic bottle full of Ogal’s contaminated water, apparently covered in an oil sheen.
On the bill, Chief Bennett Dokubo, a community leader and claimant, told The Intercept that drinking water has led to widespread cholera outbreaks. The only way to avoid disease is to buy bottled water from the city, which is expensive.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t drink water,” he said. “It’s like we’re living in the desert, when we’re living in the water.”
Shell has so far been able to avoid liability. In February 2021, however, Niger Delta communities won a procedural victory: the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was a “well-argued case” that UK parent Shell Plc was legally responsible for pollution caused by its Nigerian subsidiary. , Shell Petroleum Development Company, and that case will proceed in the English courts.
The following November, Shell filed a filing claiming the company had no legal responsibility to deal with the consequences of the spill. The oil giant demanded that any legal claim must be brought within five years of any specific spill, even if never cleaned up. Shell also claimed that only the Nigerian regulatory authorities had the power to compel them to clean up; These authorities, however, have chronically low resources. (The Nigerian government could not be reached for comment.)
“The vast majority of spills related to Beale and Ogal’s claims were due to illegal third-party interference, including pipeline sabotage, illegal bunkering and other forms of oil theft,” Shell spokeswoman Tara Lemme said in a statement to The Intercept. . “Regardless of the cause, SPDC continues to clean up and remediate spill areas from its facilities or pipeline network.”
Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images
Since 1956, when Shell first discovered oil in the Niger Delta, extractive industries have pumped the region for profit and fueled a fast-growing Nigerian economy. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest oil producer, and Shell continues to enjoy unprecedented financial gains, bringing in over $30 billion in profits by 2022.
“The money they have earned since then is blood money,” said King Okpabi of Ogal. “And we’re going from court to court.”
While the cleanup will cost Shell a fraction of its profits — the United Nations estimates the cost will be about $1 billion over the first five years — the company has been “incredibly resistant” to any kind of public health monitoring or investigation, said Matthew Renshaw, of law firm Leigh Day. It has a partner who represents claimants in Nigeria.
Renshaw told The Intercept that Shell will not be involved in health hazards and that the company is currently only facing the tip of the iceberg.
“There are literally hundreds of communities that have been affected by Shell’s oil pollution,” he said, “and could try to bring legal claims against Shell.”
“There are literally hundreds of communities that have been affected by shale oil pollution.”
Leigh Day previously represented the Bodo community in the Niger Delta on behalf of 15,000 fishermen and farmers. In 2015, the British court case resulted in an award of nearly $68 million in livelihood damages, along with the world’s largest oil-impacted mangrove cleanup in history.
Photo: Martin Pope/Getty Images
As cases mount, Shell moves to leave the region. In 2021, the company announced plans to leave the Niger Delta and sell its offshore oilfields — leaving behind environmental disasters and any liabilities.
Last June, however, Shell was forced to suspend the sale, to comply with a ruling by Nigeria’s Supreme Court that said it must await the outcome of an appeal over the 2019 oil spill, brought in a Nigerian court, which ordered the company to pay have to do Niger Delta communities paid about $2 billion in compensation.
Le Day’s current case is now on trial to determine whether Shell’s parent company in London, as well as its Nigerian subsidiary, is legally responsible for the damage to communities in the Niger Delta. A trial at the High Court in London is expected in 2024.
Until then, communities try to remain optimistic about the case.
“We are very optimistic,” Okpabi said, “but time is not on our side.”