shell won a bid to limit a British lawsuit over an oil spill off the coast of Nigeria after a judge ruled that a group of thousands of Nigerians could not prove that the disaster continued to wreak devastation on communities years later.
The Bonga oil spill in 2011 — said to be the largest spill in the Niger Delta for at least 20 years — was an environmental “catastrophe” that caused billions of dollars of damage, the Nigerian group argued.
But Judge Finola O’Farrell said Thursday that far lower volumes of oil reached the coast than the group had initially argued. It wasn’t “plausible” to suggest that the stranded oil had then contaminated the delta states over three years later, she said.
Lawyers for the Nigerian group had argued that the spill of some 40,000 barrels of oil, which happened during a transfer of oil between two vessels, wreaked havoc across communities. They’d said the oil became stranded on the sea bed, in mangrove swamps and rivers, to then be spread by storms and floods as late as 2014.
Shell has a fraught history in the West African nation, where frequent spills and challenging relationships with local communities have led it to reassess the future of its onshore and shallow water operations.
These leaks, many of which Shell blames on sabotage and theft rather than mechanical failure, have destroyed the livelihoods of fishing and farming populations in the south of the country and have led to ongoing legal battles in Nigeria, the UK and the Netherlands.
The group, which numbered some 27,800 people argued that the claim should be allowed by the UK court despite being time-barred by statutes of limitations because of the delay in impact from the accident.
Judge O’Farrell said the “chronic oil pollution” continued to blight the Niger Delta after the spill, and that the damage to communities could have been caused by other oil spills or leaks, she said.
Lawyers for the claimants didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Both parties are set to meet again later this month before the UK Supreme Court in a linked action.
The 2011 spill was “highly regrettable,” and Shell acted to contain and clean up the spill to stop oil from reaching the shore, the company said in a statement.
“The claimants have failed to establish that any oil pollution damage was caused to them by the Bonga spill or how it could have been transported – years after it occurred – to their community.”