Five years after a Shell pipeline burst twice, massively polluting fishing grounds in the Niger delta, the company will finally sit down on Monday with affected villagers to negotiate compensation and possibly start to clean up what some experts say was one of the largest spills in one of the world’s poorest regions.
But as Shell’s top legal team prepared to fly to Nigeria for talks in a Port Harcourt hotel, the gulf between what the $175bn (£112bn) a year company and the impoverished villagers of Bodo claim happened in 2008 remains vast. Shell admits liability for the spills and, using figures from an official inspection group, says that about 4,000 barrels of oil flooded into the mangrove swamps and creeks when its pipeline burst.
But independent analysis by US oil spill expert Richard Steiner suggests it was nearer 500,000 barrels. Equally, the oil company argues that relatively few people had their livelihood destroyed while the villagers say the spills affected up to 11,000 people. The company is thought to be offering about $20m compensation, but the villagers are holding out for $200m.
On Thursday, both sides squared up to each other in London. “Until the two 2008 spills, Bodo was a relatively prosperous fishing town. The spills have destroyed the fishing industry. Shell’s response has not been to try and speedily recompense the people of the community but to delay and prevaricate. Shell … have provided one-off relief materials in June 2009 amounting to 100 bags of rice, beans, sugar, 100 cartons of milk, tea, tomatoes and oil in June 2009 which was entirely inadequate for a community of 31,000 people,” said Martyn Day, senior partner with London law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the Bodo community.
“Our clients need their livelihoods back and their environment restored. Shell is finding every excuse under the sun to avoid liability for the full extent of the damage done by these spills even blaming our clients who had, before the spills, been recognised by Shell as a responsible community,” he said.
But Shell responded that the number of people claiming compensation, the damage done and the amount of money they were seeking were hugely inflated. “Hopefully we will do a deal. We have always admitted responsibility for the two operational spills in 2008 and we regret the incidents. We always clean up after any spill from our operational area and we compensate the people affected, but inevitably there are people on the bandwagon. We want to pay people who have genuinely suffered but the compensation has to be fair and correct and not at any price,” said Richard Hill, Shell’s associate general counsel for global litigation.
“We take issue with a number of the assertions made by the claimants’ UK lawyers, but our goal now is resolution, not recrimination. We are pleased that representatives of the Bodo community will attend the negotiations, since they, like us, have an interest in sensible and fair compensation being paid quickly to those who have been genuinely impacted by these highly regrettable spills.”
What neither side doubts is that Bodo and the wider region of Ogoniland is desperately poor and polluted after more than 50 years’ oil exploitation by Shell and the Nigerian government. The creeks, swamps and farmland are criss-crosssed by rusty pipelines, and, said the UN in a major report in 2011, it may need up to $1bn and 30 years to clean up the spills.
The UN’s three-year investigation found massive contamination of land and underground water courses, drinking water with dangerous concentrations of benzene and other pollutants and soil contamination more than five metres deep in many areas.
Shell maintains that it would start the clean up of the swamps around Bodo as soon as the communities allowed its contractors’ access and agreed on what was needed. “It depends on us being given the freedom to go in,” said a spokesman.
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