December 3, 2009 01:59AMT
By Elor Nkereuwem  
For the first time, a court in The Hague, The Netherlands, will today begin a sitting to determine the liability of Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDS), the parent
company of the Nigerian multinational oil company Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), for oil spills in Nigeria.
Two Nigerians, Fidelis Oguru and Alali Efanga, who claim that their sources of livelihood had been destroyed as a result of oil spills from SPDC's facilities, have
dragged the parent company of SPDC, RDS, to the courts in The Netherlands. The men, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie), an
environment organisation which campaigns against environmental damage, have brought the legal proceedings against SPDC and RDS alleging that "as the result of SPDC's
negligence, agricultural lands have been devastated, drinking water polluted, fish ponds made unusable and the environment and health of local people harmed."
According to the group, the oil spill took place on June 26, 2005 from a high pressure pipe-line, a facility owned by SPDC in Oruma, Bayelsa State. The group also
said that the spill happened in the rainy season which aided the spread of the oil further into the forest and the creeks up to the community's drinking water supply. 

‘Not liable'
The RDS has however contested the jurisdiction of the Dutch court to rule on the activities of Shell in Nigeria asking that, as a first step, the case should
determine whether SPDC can stand trial in the Netherlands. The SPDC through its lawyers also claim that the oil company is not liable for the
oil spill which occurred as a result of sabotage. "Even though SPDC and defendant 1, Royal Dutch Shell Plc ("RDS"), regret the fact
that this oil spill occurred, of course, they are not liable for this spill or for the consequences," the SPDC said in its letter of defence.
The plaintiffs however said that the step to bring the case before a court in the Netherlands was taken as a last resort. "These people have tried in many ways to get Shell to clean up the mess, but they
have got nowhere. Now, as a last resort, they are trying to obtain justice in the Netherlands," says Chima Williams, the attorney who is in The Netherlands on behalf
of the plaintiffs in Nigeria. Mr. Williams' clients are claiming compensation from the Dutch multinational and asking that the SPDC cleans up the environment to enable them return to their
agricultural activities of fishing and farming.

"I inherited the fish ponds from my late father. Because of the oil leak I lost my source of income... we want Shell-headquarters to take its responsibility; that is
why we are ready to take this matter to court in the Netherlands," Mr. Efanga claimed in a Milieudefensie publication of December, 2009.
The SPDC however countered this claim saying, that of the 400 barrels of oil spilled as a result of sabotage on their facility, 350 barrels of oil had been collected and
removed. "Following this, the affected area was further cleaned up and remediated. After this work had been completed in April of 2006, the competent government authorities
confirmed that the affected area had been properly cleaned up and remediated with what is referred to as a Clean-up and Remediation Certification Format," the SPDC,
through its lawyers, said.

Not so, say the farmers and fishermen, who say that it was not just the oil spill that led to the damage of the environment. According to the men, contractors
employed by SPDC to clean up the spill in the bid to burn off the spilt oil further burnt several trees. "The clean-up was not properly done and done adversely. After the clean-up, the fish
ponds still contained the crude oil whereby all the fishes died," Mr. Oguru alleged. Research by Friends of the Earth Netherlands shows that as at March 2008, at least
two years after the spill, the community residents still had no fish in their ponds. Passing the buck, Richard Steiner, a professor of environmental policy and marine conservation at the university of Alaska, believes that the SPDC may not be following international
environmental standards. Mr. Steiner, who conducted site visits to the Niger Delta in 2006 and 2007, says that SPDC's claim of the yearly 272 oil spills for the
periods between 1998-2001 is understating the facts.

"[I feel] that Shell Nigeria's reporting of spill numbers and volumes represent a significant under-reporting of the actual spill frequency and volume," he said in a
November, 2008 publication. Mr. Steiner's report concludes that "Shell Nigeria continues to operate well below internationally recognized standards to prevent and control pipeline oil spills."
According to Milieudefense, while the SPDC's parent body claims to have no influence on the working practice of its subsidiary in Nigeria, the RDS and SPDC operate as
one unit, citing that Shell's environmental policy is centrally managed and thus RDS is liable for SPDC's activities in Nigeria.
"Before now, Shell as well as other internationally operating companies have refused to take responsibility for the actions of their subsidiaries abroad. In many
countries, including Nigeria, the legal system is inadequate, and it is thus crucial that a company can also be brought to trial elsewhere," says Milieudefensie.
The SPDC's media manager, Tony Okonedo, would not answer any questions from NEXT on the case and asked that all enquiries be made to group media relations officer in
The Netherlands.

Adam Newton of the RDS, Netherlands, did not respond to email enquiries from NEXT. Today's court case, at the Recht Bank den Haag, will not only raise questions of oil
spills and environmental damage in Nigeria, but will also address the relationship between SPDC and its parent body, RDS.
"I expect the court to be open to hear the arguments to be presented in order to reach an unbiased decision," says Mr. Williams, the plaintiffs' attorney, adding
that it is too early to have expectations from the court.

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