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 Wednesday.
The letters sent to Royal Dutch Shell PLC accuse the company of negligence by improperly maintaining equipment and failing to clean up spills that devastated crops and fish farms in the Niger Delta.
The Shell Petroleum Development Company 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 a lawsuit 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. "We are calling on Shell to respect international standards and the law in Nigeria, and because they are not doing that, we are taking them to court in the Netherlands," she said.
A Shell spokesman in Rotterdam, Andre Romeyn, said 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 cleanup fees, or "security contracts" to protect the tubes from similar damage.
By some estimates, some 10 percent of Nigeria's declared 2 million barrel 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 and fishing nets coated with black grime.
"I lost everything I had," said Barizaa Dooh, 72, one of the plaintiffs, speaking in a video filmed at Goi in Ogoniland.
Dutch lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said she notified Shell of the three potential legal cases Friday. The notification asked Shell to respond within three weeks.
Shell Nigeria is the operator of the joint venture operating in the delta. The government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. owns 55 percent, Royal Dutch Shell has a 30 percent stake, the French oil company Total SA owns 10 percent, and Italy's Agip owns 5 percent.
Shell has been drilling in Nigeria for 50 years and is the largest of the oil majors in the African nation, which produces 3 percent of the world's oil.
In its annual sustainability report, due to be released this week, The Anglo-Dutch company said that last year it completed the cleanup of 61 oil spills out of 74 sites. Of the remaining 13, its workers had been blocked from eight by the communities, according to the report obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
More than 500 pollution cases have been filed in Nigerian courts against Shell Nigeria, but few of them have made their way through the judicial process, van Schaik said.
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