Oil Giants Shell avoid lawsuit over contamination of Niger Delta

Oil spills are becoming increasingly common in the Niger Delta, where communities depend on the water for fishing, farming, and drinking purposes (Wikimedia Commons) The British High Court blocked a request by a group of Nigerian villagers to take Royal Dutch Shell, an oil company, to court over their pollution of the Niger Delta on January 26. The pollution affects nearly 50,000 people of the indigenous Ogale and Bille communities. Oil spills in the delta have been ongoing since 1989 and have resulted in the loss of clean drinking water and the destruction of important farmland.

The United Nations Environment Programme investigated the severe damage to agricultural resources in 2011 and concluded that spills occur “with alarming regularity.” These spills present serious health risks for those who rely on the delta for drinking water. The water, contaminated at a rate 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian legal limit, was deemed unfit for human consumption.

Shell accepted the outcomes of the report and promised to implement a safer collection measure that would prevent future spills in the region. Five years later, the oil giants have failed to comply with the recommended safety measures or clean the contaminated areas, despite pressure from the UN and Amnesty International.

Representatives of the communities pushed for a court hearing in the U.K. to receive fair and impartial treatment, but the move was blocked in part due to Shell’s vast international influence. The High Court ruled that it is a local issue that should first be dealt with in Nigerian courts. Villagers do not trust that they will receive a fair trial.

Oil giants taking advantage of important natural resources in poor communities is not a new phenomenon. Similar events took place in 2014 when the Bodo community of Nigeria suffered serious health effects due to a spill in the Niger Delta. They eventually received $84 million in compensation.

It remains to be seen if the Ogale community will force Shell to pay the price for their reckless actions, but community leader Emre Okpabi is not giving up the fight. He said in late January, "There is no hope of justice in the Nigerian courts. We still very much believe in the British justice system, and so we are going to appeal this decision."