Dutch court says Shell partly responsible for Nigeria spills

Thu, Jan 31, 2013, 00:00

Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has said it is happy with the judgment of a Dutch court yesterday that dismissed four out of five claims that it caused devastating oil pollution on land owned by Nigerian farmers in west Africa’s Niger Delta.

The court in The Hague ordered Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, to compensate only one farmer, 52-year-old Friday Akpan, from the village of Ikot Ada Udo, a father of 12. Judge Henk Wien said the court would give its ruling on the size of the damages at a later hearing.

The four other claims were thrown out by the court, which accepted Shell’s contention that the pollution in 2004, 2005 and 2007 – which left land unusable, water undrinkable and fish unfit for human consumption – was caused not by poor maintenance of oil pipelines but by sabotage.

Dismissed

The action, which was filed in 2008 by the Nigerian farmers and environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth, was the first time a Dutch-registered company was sued in a Netherlands court for offences allegedly carried out by an overseas subsidiary. However, Judge Wien said the court dismissed all claims against the parent company “since, pursuant to Nigerian law, a parent company in principle is not obliged to prevent its subsidiaries from harming third parties abroad”.

In the case of Mr Akpan, for which Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was found liable, the court said that although it believed the pollution had been caused by sabotage, “Shell Nigeria should and could have prevented this sabotage in an easy way.”

Mr Akpan welcomed the judgment, which he said would help him to repay substantial debts he’d been left with when his 47 fish ponds were destroyed and all the fish killed.

“I am not surprised at the decision because there was divine intervention in the court,” he said.

“Since the damage I have been living by God’s grace and with the help of good Samaritans. This will be a lesson to Shell that they cannot simply damage people’s livelihoods.”

Appeal

Friends of the Earth spokesman Geert Ritsema pledged last night that the group would appeal the dismissed cases – not least because the farmers’ land still needed to be cleaned.

He said it was significant and new that an oil company was being held responsible for failing to prevent sabotage – and he said hundreds of other farmers in Mr Akpan’s village, Ikot Ada Udo, could now begin similar actions.

Shell’s vice-president for the environment, Allard Castelein, said the company was happy with the rulings, which he said had vindicated it on the key points. “We didn’t lose the case. It wasn’t an operational failure. The leak was as a consequence of sabotage.”

He said the case did not set a precedent because the parent company had not been held responsible. He said Shell would negotiate the amount of damages with Mr Akpan, adding that an appeal could delay the outcome of those talks.