THE HAGUE, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Four Nigerian villagers took Royal Dutch Shell to court on Thursday in a landmark pollution case that campaigners said could open the door to more compensation claims against international companies.
The fishermen and farmers, together with the Friends of the Earth campaign group, accuse the oil major of polluting land and waterways around their homes in the Niger Delta region of Africa's top energy producer.
Shell has denied responsibility, saying the leaks were caused by sabotage.
The villagers launched their claim in a civil court in The Hague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters.
It was the first time a Dutch-registered company had been sued in a Dutch court for offences allegedly carried out by a foreign subsidiary.
Friends of the Earth said the claim, if successful, could open up a new way for plaintiffs to take on multinationals - by suing their parent companies in their home countries.
The villagers, who appeared in court, want unspecified damages saying Shell and other corporations were responsible for pollution from three oil spills between 2004 and 2007.
"My community is a ghost land as a result of the devastation. We had good vegetation. Today people have respiratory problems and are getting sick," said one of the plaintiffs Eric Dooh, from the Goi community, which lives between two pipelines.
"Shell is aware of the whole devastation. I want them to pay compensation, to clean up the pollution so we can grow our crops and fish again," the 44-year-old told Reuters before the hearing.
Shell says the pollution was caused by thieves breaking into pipelines to steal the oil, and believes it has played its part in cleaning it up.
"The matter has been resolved as far as we are concerned and we do not properly understand why Friends of the Earth has submitted the case," Allard Castelein, Shell's vice president for environment, told Reuters before the hearing.
The biggest pollution problem in the Niger Delta was caused by thieves who steal oil from Shell's installations, he said. Around 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in the Delta. That is worth about $6 billion a year.
Friends of the Earth said other companies could face similar claims in European Union cities if it won the case.
"It opens up a range of possibilities for people from poor countries to use the legal system to seek compensation from companies," said Geert Ritsema, international affairs coordinator at the environmental group during a break in the proceedings.
The Nigerians' lawyer Channa Samkalden told the court Shell had failed to maintain pipelines, clean up leaks and prevent pollution.
"It was insufficient maintenance, not sabotage, that was responsible for the leaks ... Shell did not operate as a conscientious oil company," she said.
With around 31 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta is one of the world's most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems. It is an important source of food for the poor, rural population.
Last year, the United Nations said in a report the government and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, were responsible for 50 years of oil pollution that had devastated the Ogoniland region, part of the Niger Delta.
The government and oil firms have pledged to clean up the region and other parts of the Delta, but residents say they have seen little action.
Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC) is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, with production capacity of more than 1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.
It operates a joint venture in which state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp has a majority share. Total SA subsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd. also has a stake.
Three judges are expected to deliver their verdict on the Hague case in the new year. (Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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Niger Delta ExxonMobil Spill, Nigeria - May 2010
In Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State, an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on May 1 and spilled over a million gallons of oil, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Guardian</em></a>. The leak continued for seven days before it was stopped. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omoyele-sowore/the-oil-spill-no-ones-tal_b_649220.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger Omoyele Sowore explained</a> in July 2010 that an oil spill from ExxonMobil operations was nothing new to the country. He wrote that an "environmental catastrophe [had] been going on since December 2009." He described the toll on Nigeria: "There's oil on the surface of the ocean, wildlife coated in crude, fishermen losing their businesses."
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill - May 2010
In May 2010, several thousand barrels of oil spilled from the Trans-Alaska pipeline "during a scheduled pipeline shutdown at a pump station near Fort Greely," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/26/alaska-oil-spill-trans-al_n_589974.html" target="_hplink">explained AP</a>. No injuries were reported and officials said the spill was likely "limited to the gravel on top of the containment area's line."
Red Butte Creek Spill, Utah - June 2010
In June 2010, a Chevron pipeline ruptured and spilled oil into a creek near Salt Lake City, Utah. It was first estimated that over 400 to 500 barrels spilled into the creek, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/12/utah-oil-spill-500-gallon_n_610232.html#s99698" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Around 150 birds were "identified for rehabilitation." The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/14/utah-oil-spill-officials-_n_611014.html" target="_hplink">oil did not reach the Great Salt Lake</a>, however. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/14/chevron-cited-for-oil-spi_n_646340.html" target="_hplink">Chevron was later cited for the spill</a>, which released an estimated 33,000 gallons in total. In March 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120324/us-oil-spill-utah/" target="_hplink">a group of 66 residents of a Salt Lake City neighborhood sued Chevron</a> for damage caused by the Red Butte Creek spill and a smaller spill in December 2011.
Kalamazoo River Spill, Michigan - July 2010
In late July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline in southwestern Michigan sprung a leak and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/27/michigan-oil-spill-among_n_661196.html" target="_hplink">spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek</a> which flows into the Kalamazoo River. By August, a regional EPA administrator said that significant progress had been made at the site, but "the agency cautioned that it will take months to complete the cleanup," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/02/michigan-oil-spill-epa-of_n_667556.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. By the end of September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/michigan-oil-pipeline-res_n_741233.html" target="_hplink">the pipeline -- which travels from Ontario to Indiana -- was back in operation</a>. The EPA later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111116/us-michigan-river-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reported that about 1.1 million gallons of oil were recovered</a>, but pipeline operator Enbridge said that it would stick with previous estimates that only about 843,000 gallons were spilled.
Xingag Harbor Spill, Dailan, China - July 2010
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Peace River Spill, Alberta, Canada - April 2011
In late April 2011, a pipeline in northwestern Alberta began leaking, and created the worst spill in the province in 36 years, <a href="http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/alberta/Rainbow+pipeline+leak+largest+years/4720888/story.html" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Calgary Herald</em></a>. About 28,000 barrels of oil were reportedly spilled from the Rainbow pipeline, which is operated by Plains Midstream Canada. The <em>Globe and Mail</em> revealed that the pipeline operators "<a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/oil-on-rainbow-line-halted-8-hours-after-problem-detected/article2013335/" target="_hplink">detected a potential problem nearly eight hours before halting the flow of crude</a>." A nearby school in a First Nation community was closed after residents reported "nausea, burning eyes and other symptoms," and several animals were found dead. In late July, Plains Midstream <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/07/28/alberta-pipeline-owner-as_n_912796.html" target="_hplink">requested to re-open the pipeline</a> and begin to ship oil to Edmonton again.
Bohai Bay Spill, China - June 2011
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Yellowstone River Spill, Montana - July 2011
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North Sea Spill, United Kingdom - Aug. 2011
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Campos Basin Spill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Nov. 2011
In mid-November 2011, Brazilian authorities began investigating an offshore spill near Rio de Janeiro, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/chevron-oil-spill-brazil_n_1100062.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Chevron initially reported that between 400 and 650 barrels of oil had spilled into the Atlantic, while a nonprofit environmental group using satellite imagery estimated that the spill rate was at least 3,738 barrels per day. Chevron soon claimed full responsibility for the spill. The brazilian division's COO said, Chevron "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/20/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-_n_1104070.html" target="_hplink">takes full responsibility for this incident</a>," and that "any oil on the surface of the ocean is unacceptable to Chevron," reported AP. In December, Brazilian prosecutors announced that they were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/brazil-oil-spill-chevron-payment_n_1149554.html"target="_hplink">seeking $10.6 billion in damages</a> from Chevron for the spill that leaked nearly 3,000 barrels of oil. In March 2012, a Brazilian federal judge <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/18/brazil-oil-spill-chevron_n_1355923.html" target="_hplink">allowed prosecutors to file criminal charges against Chevron and Transocean</a> and 17 executives from both companies were barred from leaving Brazil.
Rena Spill, New Zealand - Oct. 2011
In October 2011, a Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran aground on a reef in Northern New Zealand and began leaking oil. With oil washing up on shore, a government minister deemed it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/11/new-zealand-oil-spill_n_1004643.html" target="_hplink">the country's largest maritime environmental disaster</a> a week later. Although over 2,000 sea birds were killed by the spill that spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins_n_1107289.html" target="_hplink">343 little blue penguins were rescued and cleaned of oil</a>. <em>[<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/new-zealand-oil-spill-penguins-released_n_1151788.html" target="_hplink">Watch video of the penguins' release into the wild here.</a>]</em> In January, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/new-zealand-oil-spill-ship_n_1196568.html" target="_hplink">half of the stricken Rena began sinking</a> into the sea after breaking apart and spilling over 100 cargo containers.
Nigeria Oil Spill - Dec. 2011
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