The water in Ogale, a rural community in Nigeria, is so toxic and polluted with oil that it comes out brown and stinks of sulphur. Children and families get sick just trying to bathe or stay hydrated. In Bille, a fishing community of around 45 islands surrounded entirely by water, there are no fish left. Oily water seeps into people’s homes, and, without a source of income, money is scarce. The 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 Shell for decades, devastating their health and livelihoods. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that the threat to public health warranted “emergency action.” At the time, the cleanup process would have taken 30 years, if initiated immediately.
It never happened. Shell refused to cooperate, and the situation has only gotten worse, with 55 oil spills in the last 12 years. Amnesty International called the Niger Delta region “one of the most polluted places on earth.”
On January 27, over 11,300 residents from Ogale — which has a population of approximately 40,000 — and 17 local organizations, including churches and schools, filed individual claims at the High Court in London against Shell. With the existing claims from the Bille community, this brings the total number against the oil company to over 13,650.
The Ogale and Bille locals attribute environmental destruction, death, and diseases to the repeated spills. Infants in the Niger Delta, for instance, are twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers live near an oil spill, according to a study published in 2017.
Local leaders are distraught and angry. “As we speak, oil is spilling in my community every day, people are dying,” King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, leader of the Ogale community, told The Intercept.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t drink water. It’s like we are living in a desert, while we are living on the water.”
In 2016, a year after the initial legal case got underway, Okpabi flew to London for a High Court hearing with plastic bottles full of contaminated water from Ogale, visibly covered in an oil sheen.
In Bille, Chief Bennett Dokubo, a community leader and claimant, told The Intercept that drinking water has caused massive cholera outbreaks. The only way to avoid disease is buying 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 are living in a desert, while we are living on the water.”
Shell has so far managed to brush aside accountability. In February 2021, though, the Niger Delta communities secured a procedural win: The U.K. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was a “good arguable case” that Shell plc, the U.K. parent company, was legally responsible for the pollution caused by its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company, and that the case would proceed in the English courts.
The following November, Shell filings claimed the company had no legal responsibility to deal with the consequences of spills. The oil giant contended that any legal claim must be brought within five years of any specific spill, even if a cleanup never took place. Shell also claimed that only the Nigerian regulatory authorities have the power to force them to clean up; those authorities, however, are chronically under-resourced. (The Nigerian government could not be reached for comment.)
“The overwhelming majority of spills related to the Bille and Ogale claims were caused by illegal third-party interference, including pipeline sabotage, illegal bunkering and other forms of oil theft,” said Tara Lemay, a Shell spokesperson, in a statement to The Intercept. “Irrespective of cause, SPDC has and will continue to clean up and remediate areas affected by spills from its facilities or pipeline network.”
Photos: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images
Since 1956, when Shell first discovered oil in the Niger Delta, extractive industries have pumped the region for profits and bolstered a rapidly growing Nigerian economy. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest oil producer, and Shell continues to reap unprecedented financial gains, bringing in over $30 billion in profit in 2022.
“All the money they have made from then until now is blood money,” Okpabi, the king of Ogale, said. “And we are going from courthouse to courthouse.”
Despite the fact that the cleanup would cost Shell a fraction of its profits — the U.N. estimated the first five years would cost around $1 billion — the company has been “incredibly resistant” to any form of public health monitoring or investigations, said Matthew Renshaw, a partner at law firm Leigh Day who represents the claimants in Nigeria.
Renshaw told The Intercept that Shell will not engage with the health dangers and that the company is currently only facing the tip of the iceberg.
“There are literally hundreds of communities that have been impacted by Shell’s oil pollution,” he said, “and could seek to bring legal claims against Shell.”
“There are literally hundreds of communities that have been impacted by Shell’s oil pollution.”
Leigh Day previously represented the Bodo community in the Niger Delta, on behalf of 15,000 fishers and farmers. In 2015, the suit, in British court, resulted in compensation for loss of livelihoods of approximately $68 million, along with the world’s largest cleanup of oil-impacted mangroves in history.
As the cases proliferate, Shell has moved toward leaving the region. In 2021, the company announced its plan to leave the Niger Delta and sell its onshore oil fields — leaving environmental disaster and any sense of obligation behind.
Last June, though, Shell was forced to suspend sales, complying with a Nigerian Supreme Court ruling that said it had to wait for the outcome of an appeal over a 2019 oil spill, brought in Nigerian court, which stated the company needed to pay the Niger Delta communities nearly $2 billion in compensation.
Leigh Day’s current case is now proceeding to trial to determine whether Shell’s parent company in London, as well as its Nigerian subsidiary, are legally responsible for the harm caused to the communities in the Niger Delta. The trial in the High Court in London is expected to take place in 2024.
Until then, the communities try to remain hopeful about the case.
“We are very hopeful,” said Okpabi, “but time is not on our side.”