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Nigerian communities’ oil pollution claims against Shell to go to trial as Shell abandons its jurisdiction arguments

Unprecedented oil pollution claims against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary SPDC will finally be heard in the High Court in London after the oil giant dropped its attempts to avoid English jurisdiction.

Posted on 12 July 2021

The case Okpabi v Shell will go to trial in the English courts in which the Ogale and Bille communities seek clean up and reparations for oil pollution that has devastated their village and lands for decades.

The communities allege that both Royal Dutch Shell plc (the parent company) and its Nigerian subsidiary (SPDC) are jointly responsible for the oil contamination they have suffered. The English courts now has jurisdiction over both companies who will jointly defend the proceedings.

The trial is likely to lead to the disclosure, for the first time, of internal Shell documents about its environmental practices in Nigeria.

This comes at a time when the multinational has announced it is pulling out of the country, leaving behind a legacy of systemic oil pollution which has impacted hundreds of communities across Nigeria.

The case, expected to be heard in 2022 promises to be a major UK corporate accountability claim in which law firm Leigh Day will seek to replicate the success of lawyers who achieved a landmark ruling in a Dutch appeals court in January 2021.

This latest development in the litigation comes after the landmark ruling in February 2021 in which the Supreme Court [add link] ruled that Royal Dutch Shell plc, (the UK parent company) was arguably liable for pollution in the Communities’ land which resulted from systemic failings in SPDC’s operations.

The Supreme Court sent remaining questions to the High Court for determination as to whether SPDC could be joined to the claims.

Shell has now confirmed that it will not contest the remaining jurisdictional issues and SPDC will therefore be joined to the claims against RDS.

Leigh Day partner Daniel Leader, who represents the claimants, said:

“This is a significant win for the communities. After five years of legal arguments at the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, the Communities claims can finally progress toward a trial. In the meantime, Shell’s oil contamination remains in their drinking water, land and waterways and still no clean-up has taken place. As these claims progress to trial, the communities will continue to expose this scandal and are confident that they finally get justice.”

Leigh Day Senior Partner Martyn Day who represents the Bille community said:

“Having obtained a successful resolution of earlier claims against Shell by affected communities from the Niger Delta we are optimistic that following the Supreme Court judgment that we will be able to provide families and communities impacted by Shell oil spills with a comparatively straightforward route to justice. The courts in this country have been shown to be sympathetic to the plight of our Nigerian clients – long may that continue.”


The Ogale Community

The Ogale community is a rural community of about 40,000 people situated in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.

The people of Ogale have traditionally been either crop farmers or fishermen who rely on Ogale’s tributaries and waterways as fishing areas. Shell has a long legacy of oil pollution in Ogale.

According to Shell’s own records, the community has been impacted by at least 40 oil spills from Shell’s pipelines and equipment since 1989. Shell’s pipelines and infrastructure in Ogale are several decades old and in a poor state of repair, making the area vulnerable to oil spills which have caused, and continue to cause, long-term contamination of the land, swamps, groundwater and waterways in the Community.

In 2011 the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) published an Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland which included extensive testing of the Ogale Community. UNEP’s testing of Ogale reported serious contamination of agricultural land and waterways in the community as well as its groundwater, exposing Ogale’s inhabitants to serious health risks. Groundwater oil contamination in Ogale was found to be 1,000 times higher than levels permitted under Nigerian law and water in the community was found to be unfit for human consumption.

Community members report that the oil contamination has impacted on their farming productivity, and fishing has all but ended in the community.

10 years after the publication of the UNEP report, residents are still not being provided with clean drinking water and community members who are not able to pay for alternative water have no choice but to drink contaminated water.

The Bille Community

Bille is located in the Degema Local Government Area (LGA) in River State, Nigeria. Populated by nearly 13,000 residents, it is comprised of a number of island towns and fishing settlements that are surrounded entirely by water.

Residents of Bille have traditionally relied on fishing to sustain their way of life. However, following the devastation caused by the spills emanating from an oil pipeline known as the Nembe Creek 30” Trunkline (NCTL) their livelihood has been destroyed.

According to the legal action, the creeks, mangroves and island communities in Bille have been devastated by oil emanating from the NCTL since the replacement of the Bille section of the pipeline in 2010.

It is alleged that 13,200 hectares of mangrove have been damaged by oil spilled from the Bille Pipelines and Infrastructure, the largest loss of mangrove habitat in the history of oil spills.

Daniel Leader
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Daniel Leader

International human rights, business human rights and corporate accountability lawyer

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Shell - Ogale and Bille

In October and December 2015, the Ogale and Bille Communities in the Niger Delta filed claims in the English Courts against Shell. The cases involve devastating oil pollution caused by Shell’s operations.