Nigeria: traditional Ogoni king files $1 billion pollution suit against Shell Oil

King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi and four other tribal leaders in Nigeria’s Ogoniland last week filed a lawsuit in US federal court against Royal Dutch Shell PLC, charging the oil giant polluted local groundwater with benzene at levels 900 times the limits set by the World Health Organization. The lawsuit is based on a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report assessing the impact of oil contamination on the environment and public health in Ogoniland. The report, which was published in August, found high levels of the carcinogen benzene as well as several inches of refined oil floating in groundwater that the village uses for drinking and agriculture. The UN investigators suggested that both Royal Dutch Shell and Nigeria’s state oil company (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation—NNPC) were responsible for the pollution, although Shell abandoned the area in 1993. The complaint, filed in US District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, contends that Shell’s actions were willfully negligent in contaminating groundwater. Suing under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), the plaintiffs are seeking $1 billion in damages, an injunction and immediate cleanup.

The suit was filed days after the US Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases to determine whether oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, are immune from US lawsuits under the ATS. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely have an impact on the outcome of the Nigerian villagers’ lawsuit. (Jurist, Oct. 23; AFP, Oct. 23; Jurist, Oct. 17)

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