Ogale and Bille residents of the Niger Delta are vying for justice at London’s high court.

The fossil fuel tycoon Shell is being sued by nearly 14,000 members of two Nigerian communities in the high court of London, who allege Shell is to blame for the severe pollution of their water sources and the ruin of their way of life.

Last week, more than 2,000 residents from the Bille area, which is primarily a fishing community, filed claims alongside the people from the farming hamlet of Ogale in the Niger delta. A total of 13,652 claims have been filed with the oil company by people, churches, and educational institutions requesting that it remove the pollution that they allege has wreaked havoc on their communities. Additionally, they want payment for the subsequent loss of their source of income. They assert that the ongoing oil spills from Shell projects have damaged their ability to fish and cultivate.

Shell claims that the towns lack the legal authority to compel them to clean up, despite the fact that it reported revenues of more than $30 billion for the first three quarters of 2022. Additionally, Shell contends that the claimants are not entitled to compensation for spills that occurred five years prior to the filing of their claims. The firm claims that many leaks are caused by organised gangs secretly syphoning oil from its pipes, for which it accepts no liability.

As Shell gets ready to leave the Niger delta after more than 80 years of activities that have generated considerable profits, the lawsuit against it is being heard.

The claimants’ attorney, Daniel Leader, a partner at Leigh Day, stated: “This case raises critical questions regarding the duties of oil and gas firms. It appears that Shell wants to avoid being held legally responsible for addressing the environmental destruction brought on by decades of oil leaks from its infrastructure in the Niger delta.

The subject of whether fossil fuel companies are accountable for historical and present environmental contamination is raised at a time when the globe is focusing on “the just transition”

Lawyers contend that the oil spills’ size in the delta hides a human tragedy of tremendous proportions, with the pollution that locals swallow having a negative impact on their health and mortality rates.

According to a study by the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, children in the Niger delta were twice as likely to pass away in the first month of life if their mothers lived near an oil spill. The study estimated that 11,000 infants in the Niger delta pass away prematurely each year.

Since the allegations from the residents of Ogale and Bille could not be heard in a London courtroom, Shell has claimed for five years that it is not responsible for the deeds of its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC). However, the supreme court said last year that Nigerian communities could file their claims with the high court since “there is a good arguable case.”

Shell nevertheless maintains that it is immune from liability because it is the parent business.

To benefit everyone living in the midst of chronic pollution in the 40,000-person rural community of Ogale and in Bille, a 13,000-person fishing community living on a group of islands in the mangrove forest region of the eastern Niger delta, attorneys are also pursuing compensation for alleged damage to communally owned property.

According to the accusations, the stream that serves as Ogale’s primary water source for drinking, fishing, and farming has been seriously contaminated by oil. Fish have been wiped out, drinking water has been tainted, and cropland has been destroyed by pollution. According to the reports, the majority of the water that emerges from Ogale’s borehole taps or wells has a strong oily odour and is clearly brown or coated in an oily sheen.

According to the claims, Bille’s nearby rivers have been severely contaminated by oil spills from Shell’s equipment. Many people have oil odours in their homes because they live near water. Oily water is so close to their homes during high tide that it damages their homes and other belongings. The oil leaks have killed the majority of the fish and shellfish in the rivers and devastated extensive tracts of mangrove forest, leaving Bille’s fishing community without a source of food or money.

According to the complaints made to the high court, Shell Plc and/or its subsidiary SPDC were aware that systemic oil spills from their pipes occurred over a long period of time but did not take the necessary precautions to stop them or clean them up.

Since Shell began operating in Nigeria 86 years ago, the country has continued to contribute significantly to the company’s overall profitability. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report in 2011 detailing the disastrous effects of the oil industry in Ogoniland and outlining urgent proposals for “the greatest terrestrial cleanup operation in history.” It estimated that a five-year initial cleaning would cost $1 billion, or around 3% of Shell’s 2022 earnings.

But according to a report published by several NGOs last year, the inhabitants of Ogoniland are still waiting for the oil spills to be completely cleaned up.

“We fully believe in the merits of our case,” a Shell representative stated. In relation to the Bille and Ogale claims, illegal third-party interference—such as pipeline sabotage, illegal bunkering, and other types of oil theft—was to blame for the vast majority of leaks. These regions also see widespread illegal processing of stolen crude oil, which is a significant source of oil pollution.

The primary sources of pollution, according to Shell, were sabotage, crude oil theft, and illegal refining. Shell informed the Guardian that it had cleaned up and remedied the impacted sites and was collaborating with the relevant Nigerian authorities to prevent these activities. It argued that legal action would not significantly help resolve this problem.

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