Four Nigerian villagers and an environmental group are demanding oil company Shell take responsibility for damage from oil leaks caused by its Nigerian subsidiary, lawyers said.
In letters sent to the company, Royal Dutch Shell PLC is accused of negligence for improperly maintaining equipment and failing to clean up spills that devastated crops and fish farms in the Niger Delta.
The Shell Petroleum Development Co of Nigeria, or Shell Nigeria, operates more than 1,000 wells in the delta, an area the size of England.
The villagers and the Friends of the Earth say that if Shell does not acknowledge responsibility, they will file suit in Dutch courts seeking to clarify responsibility and win damages.
“This is the first time a Dutch company would be held liable for damage by a daughter operation in another country,” said Anne van Schaik, of the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth, which is a party to the case.
A Shell spokesman in Rotterdam, Andre Romeyn, said on Wednesday that he had not yet seen the letters. Shell would need to study them before deciding whether to publicly respond, he said.
Many pipeline leaks in Nigeria are caused by criminals who tap into the vast network of aboveground pipes and tubes and siphon crude oil for resale to black-market traders.
Job-seeking villagers also may purposely cause leaks, then demand oil companies pay them clean up fees, or “security contracts” to protect the tubes from similar damage.
Townspeople angry at their poverty also threaten or extort money from oil workers who try to maintain the pipeline infrastructure.
By some estimates, some 10 percent of Nigeria’s declared 2 million barrels per day production is lost to thieves stealing crude, which keeps flowing into the environment after the criminals’ departure.
Chima Williams, a Nigerian lawyer who visited the stricken areas, described oil slicks spreading through croplands during the rainy season, choking fields of cassava and yam and killing fruit trees.
In the village of Goi, he saw fishing nets coated with black grime, destroyed mangroves and trees burned to blackened sticks by oil fires.
“I lost everything I had,” said Barizaa Dooh, 72, one of the plaintiffs, speaking in a video filmed at Goi in Ogoniland.
Another villager comes from Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom state, and two plaintiffs are from Oruma in the state of Bayelsa.
Dutch lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said she notified Shell of the three potential legal cases on Friday and asked Shell to provide a list of documents, including assessment reports of spills, action reports, clean up reports, and inspection and maintenance records of pipelines and other equipment.
“We have asked them to take a decision on their liability,” she said. “If they reject everything, things might move a lot faster toward a court case.”
The notification asked Shell to respond within three weeks.
Zegveld also has asked Shell for documentation that would help unravel the ownership structure of the joint venture operating in the delta and to spell out the responsibilities of the various partners.
Shell Nigeria is the operator for a company in which the government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp owns 55 percent.
Royal Dutch Shell has a 30 percent stake, the French oil company Total owns 10 percent and Italy’s Agip owns 5 percent.
The company itself has no identifiable name and is referred to in Shell documents as the NNPC-Shell-Total-Agip Joint Venture.