Oil firm held to account for Nigeria contamination

Dutch court rules that Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary should be held responsible for pipeline leaks that are poisoning farmland in Nigeria.

THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS // A Dutch court has said that a subsidiary of the international oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, should be held responsible for pipeline leaks that are poisoning farmland in Nigeria.

In its ruling today, the Hague Civil Court rejected most of a landmark case against Shell brought by Nigerian farmers and the environmental pressure group, Friends of the Earth.

The court said the leaking pipelines were caused by saboteurs, not Shell negligence.

But in one case, the judges ordered a subsidiary, Shell Nigeria, to compensate a farmer for a breach of duty of care because they had made it too easy for saboteurs to open an oil well head that leaked on to his land.

It was believed to be the first time a Dutch court has held a multinational's foreign subsidiary liable for environmental damage and ordered it to pay damages.

Shell hailed the judgment as a victory. "We are very pleased by the ruling of the court today," said Allard Castelein, the company's vice president of environment. "It's clear that both the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the local venture ... has been proven right."

The Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, which represented the Nigerian farmers, welcomed the compensation order for one village, but said it was "stunned" by its defeats in other villages.

The level of damages in the successful case will be decided during another hearing, but that could be held up as Friends of the Earth said it planned to appeal the initial ruling.

Only one of the Nigerian plaintiffs, Eric Barizaadooh, was in court yesterday. His claim was one of those rejected by the court, but he said he was happy for the village that won compensation.

"For my colleagues who succeeded, that is victory," he said. "Shell is brought to book. I believe this is a revolutionary case."

Shell's local subsidiary is the top foreign oil producer in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich region about the size of Portugal.

Shell, which discovered the country's oil in the late 1950s, has been heavily criticised by activists and local communities over oil spills and close ties to government security forces. Some Shell pipelines that criss-cross the delta are decades old and can fail, causing massive pollution.

The company has made efforts to improve its standing in communities during the last decade by building clinics, roads and even natural-gas power plants.

It blames most spills now on thieves who tap into its pipelines to steal crude oil.

"The complexity lies in the fact that the theft and the sabotage is part of an organised crime ... that siphons away a billion dollars a month," from Nigeria, said Mr Castelein. "This is organised crime."