“Nowhere and no one has escaped”

In the wake of Shell’s admission of liability for two massive oil spills in the Niger delta in 2008, John Vidal examines their social and environment impacts on 69,000 people in the Ogoni district.

(On August 3, 2011, Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary accepted full liability for oil spills that devastated the environment and local livelihoods in Ogoniland, a Niger delta region. The case was the first in which the companies faced claims in the United Kingdom for damage resulting from its operations in Nigeria, and opens the way for a series of similar claims in British courts. Compensation is to be set later this year.)

The air stinks, the water stinks, and even the fish and crabs caught in Bodo creek smell of pure “sweet bonny” light crude oil. The oil has found its way deep into the village wells, it lies thick in the mudflats and there are brown and yellow slicks all along the lengthy network of creeks, swamps, mangrove forests and rivers that surround Bodo in the Niger delta.

The first oil ever exported from Nigeria was found just eight kilometres away from Bodo in 1958. But chief Tella James, chair of Bodo’s maritime workers, says life for the 69,000 people who live in the vicinity changed dramatically in August 2008 when a greasy sheen was first seen deep in the Bodo swamps kilometres from the nearest houses.

Shell disputes that, saying that a weld broke in September 2008 in the 50-year-old trans-Niger pipeline that takes 120,000 barrels of oil a day at high speed across the Niger delta. Either way the spill was not stopped until November 7, 2008. By that time, as much as 2,000 barrels a day may have been spilled directly into the water.

A month later, in December 2008, the same pipeline broke again in the swamps. This time Shell did not send anyone to inspect or repair it until February 19, 2009. According to oil spill assessment experts who have studied evidence of the two spills on the ground and on film, more than 280,000 barrels may have been spilled.

Bodo is at the epicentre of several pipelines that collect oil from nearly 100 wells in the Ogoni district and there have been plenty of minor spills in and around the communities over the years. But this was far more serious, says Nenibarini Zabby, head of conservation at the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) in Port Harcourt.

“This was an exceptionally sensitive ecosystem,” said Zabby. “The spill lasted a very long time and it spread with the tides. The health of people is at risk. The company needs to compensate the people but they must also recover the environment.”

Chief James, assistant secretary to the Bodo council of chiefs and elders, said every family had been affected by the disaster.

“Nowhere and no one has escaped,” he said. “This has caused serious poverty to everyone. Nearly 80% of people here are fishermen or they depend on the water. They have lost their livelihoods. People are leaving the community in their hundreds to search for greener pastures. We used to live beautifully. People caught so much fish we could sell it to the cities. Now we have no hope.”

A Bodo woman said social problems had followed the environmental ones. “People go hungry; there is more petty stealing,” she said.

According to the community leaders, youths from the area started to steal oil and refine it in illegal camps only after the two spills occurred. “It was the negligence of Shell which compelled people to steal,” says Groobadi Petta, president of the Bodo city youth federation. “When our livelihoods were destroyed, the youth went to places where they learned how do bunkering [often used as a euphemism for theft]. They were desperate. They learned from others to steal. It was to survive.”

Sylvester Vikpee, a barrister and legal adviser to the council of chiefs, said Shell had not responded humanely to the disaster. “They do not know the scale of the devastation. One of the richest companies in the world has done this to us. We have tried to talk to them and asked them what they plan. They have told us nothing.”

The Niger delta is one of the most polluted regions in the world, with more oil spilled across the region each year than in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to Nigerian government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillage sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller spills still waiting to be cleared up.

More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone, but while the company has been fined many times by courts in Nigeria for pollution incidents, appeals can take years and communities complain that proper clean-ups and compensation money never reaches them.

“For decades claims have swirled around in the Nigerian courts getting nowhere,” said Martyn Day of the UK law firm Leigh Day and Co. “Having a venue to bring claims in a proper structured way will revolutionise the process and hopefully ensure that the Nigerians who have suffered loss from the many, many spills, will have a much more ready outlet for their grievances and claims.”

Shell, which admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009, works in partnership with the Nigerian government in the delta, but argues that that 98% of all its oil spills are caused by vandalism, theft or sabotage by militants and communities and only a minimal amount by deteriorating infrastructure.

No one from the Shell petroleum development company in Nigeria was available to comment on the Bodo spills [at the time of writing], and a spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell in London said the company could not say anything while the case was ongoing.

“That Shell has now accepted responsibility for the massive spill at Bodo is surprising only in the sense that it is out of place for polluters of this sort to bow to the truth,” said Nimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International from Lagos. “We only hope that now they will wake up and accept responsibility for other places in the Niger delta.”

Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

A history of spills, fines and fights for rights

Oil was first found in Nigeria, then a British protectorate, in 1956 by a joint operation between Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum. The two begun production in 1958, and were soon joined by a host of other foreign oil companies in the 1960s after the country gained independence and, shortly after, fell into civil war.

The rapidly expanding oil industry was dogged in controversy from early on, with criticism that its financial proceeds were being exported or lost in corruption rather than used to help the millions living on US$1 a day in the Niger delta or to reduce its impact on the local environment.

A major 1970 oil spill in Ogoniland in the south-east of Nigeria led to thousands of gallons being spilt on farmland and rivers, ultimately leading to a fine for Shell in Nigerian courts 30 years later amounting to four billion naira [at the time in 2000, equivalent to 26 million UK pounds, or about US$44 million]. According to the Nigerian government, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000.

In 1990, the government announced a new round of oil-field licensing, the largest since the 1960s. Non-violent opposition to the oil companies by the Ogoni people in the early 1990s over the contamination of their land and lack of financial benefit from the oil revenues attracted international attention. Then, in 1995, Ogoni author and campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa was charged with incitement to murder and executed by Nigeria’s military government. In 2009, Shell agreed to pay US$15.5 million out of court, in a US settlement of a legal action accusing it of collaborating in the execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight other tribal leaders.

In an escalation of opposition to the environmental degradation and underdevelopment, armed groups began sabotaging pipelines and kidnapping oil company staff from 2006, with a ceasefire called in 2009 by one group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). A year later it announced an "all-out oil war" after a crackdown by the Nigerian military.

Hundreds of minor court cases are brought each year in Nigeria over oil spills and pollution. Last year, Shell admitted spilling 14,000 tonnes of crude oil in the creeks of the Niger delta in 2009, double the amount in the year before and quadruple that of 2007.

— By Adam Vaughan

Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011 

Homepage image from the United Nations Environment Programme/Mazen Saggar