Nigeria: Court Fines Shell $40 Million for 1970 Spill

Publisher Name: 
Environment News Service

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- A Rivers State High Court in Port Harcourt has ordered Royal Dutch/Shell to pay US$40 million in compensation for an oil spill which happened in 1970 in Ogoniland.

On Saturday, the court ordered Shell to pay four billion naira, the equivalent of US$ 40 million, to the Ejamaa Ebubu community, nine years after lawsuit was filed.

Shell's Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC), confirmed the ruling in a statement. Shell said it will appeal the decision.

Shell disclaims responsibility for the damage because the company claims it had left the Niger Delta region because of the 1967-1970 Nigerian/Biafran civil war when the spill occurred.

Shell maintains that the oil spill in Ebubu was wrongly attributed to the company, when in fact it took place in 1969, during the civil war. Shell says the company committed to clean up the spill when it purchased the land affected in 1989.

But Dr. Owens Wiwa, a Toronto physician who is brother to slain Ogoni environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, says the civil war was over by the time the spill at issue occurred.

"In 1970, there was no fighting in Ogoniland," Dr. Wiwa told ENS. "Ogoniland was all liberated. There was no war. It was after the war when Shell started pumping," he said.

"In that particular place, the oil is five meters (16 feet) deep. It has never been cleaned up. There are hard cakes of crude oil which continues to seep into the underground water. Streams remain polluted," said Dr. Wiwa.

The oil spill in Ebubu is just one of over 300 sites of spillage in Ogoniland alone, Dr. Wiwa said.

"This is due to their own own negligence. For 30 years Shell has refused to do an adequate cleanup in the area or pay adequate compensation to villagers who have been drinking from polluted streams and wells," he said.

But Shell says, "The highly-publicised spill at Ebubu near Ogoni was a legacy of the civil war when a retreating army cut a main pipeline and set the crude oil on fire in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, SPDC has purchased the land at Ebubu and undertakes periodic clean-up as oil seeps to the surface."

Shell International spokesman Eric Nickson is quoted on the company's website saying Shell has, "reports by eyewitnesses who walked along the pipeline in mid-1969, saw the ditches cut next to the line and examined the cut in the line...the spill was in existence in January 1969, when the company was not operating in the area."

Shell's appeal could keep the case before the courts for years. Dr. Wiwa says if the case drags on, the people who were harmed by the oil spill will never be compensated. "Anybody who was 20 years old when the oil spill occurred would be 50 now -- still without having received any compensation. Shell will use all the power of wealth to retain brillant lawyers to find ways to delay. This what Shell should not be allowed to do," Dr. Wiwa declared.

Most people who took the case to court will die of illness or because they are just poor. They sold their land and materials to retain lawyers, Dr. Wiwa said. "I have seen this as a doctor. I have treated quite a lot of cases," he said.

After his brother and eight others were arrested by the Abacha government and charged with murder of Ogoni leaders, Dr. Wiwa fled to Canada and settled in Toronto. Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight were executed November 10, 1995, after a flawed trial on what many believe were trumped up charges.

The execution of Saro-Wiwa provoked international outrage. The internationally recognized playwright and novelist who co-founded and helped guide Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to protest oil exploitation by the Nigerian government and Shell International in Ogoni has become a rallying point for anti-oil industry action around the world.

Abacha's death in 1998 opened the way for a return to democracy in Nigeria. In May 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was himself a political prisoner at the time of Saro-Wiwa's execution, was elected President.

President Obasanjo met with Dr. Owens Wiwa shortly after he took office and pledged to release the remains of the nine activists and to order an inquiry into their trial by a military tribunal and subsequent executions. While a symbolic funeral was held in Nigeria on April 24, 2000 for Ken Saro-Wiwa, his remains have not yet been released.

Dr. Wiwa says he will go back to Nigeria and try again to obtain his brother's remains. "There are lots of influential people in the Nigerian government, the oil industry and the military who are still in positions of power who do not want to release the body," he said.

Now a medical research scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Dr. Wiwa is investigating the relationship between stress and tuberculosis among immigrants in Toronto. He is coordinator of the Canadian branch of MOSOP.

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