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An aerial view of the affected area from 2010. (Photo: United Nations Environment Programme Disasters and Conflicts)

Shell To Pay $84 Million for Nigerian Oil Spills: 'Inadequate for Damage Done'

Lawyers say the settlement is unprecedented, but locals point out: 'The fishermen cannot hope to return to fishing in the Bodo rivers and creeks because of the depth of hydrocarbon pollution resulting from the oil spills.'

Deirdre Fulton

Royal Dutch Shell, the oil corporation responsible for two massive oil spills that devastated a small Nigerian community more than six years ago, has agreed to an unprecedented $84 million settlement with residents of the Bodo fishing village—an amount locals fear still won't go far enough to repair the ecological and economic damage wrought by leaking pipelines and pollution.

As a result of the settlement, announced Wednesday, each member of the community—which sits in amidst mangrove swamps, creeks, and channels that are the perfect breeding ground for life-sustaining fish and shellfish—will each receive about 600,000 Nigerian Naira (about US$3,327) paid into their individual bank accounts over the next few weeks. An additional $30.2 million, approximately, will go toward community infrastructure such as health facilities, schools, and a clean water supply.

"The fishermen cannot hope to return to fishing in the Bodo rivers and creeks because of the depth of hydrocarbon pollution resulting from the oil spills."
—Nnimmo Bassey, Health of Mother Earth Foundation

According to London-based law firm Leigh Day, which represented the Nigerians in court, the compensation package is thought to be one of the largest payouts to an entire community following environmental damage, and represents the first time that damages have been paid following an oil spill in Nigeria.

Shell initially offered a mere $6,000—total—to the entire community. In 2011 the oil giant admitted liability for the spills but continued to dispute the amount of oil spilled and the extent of the damage caused. Shell's claims were later discredited by research from Amnesty International and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development. 

While the agreement is an improvement from what Shell first put forward—and provides confirmation of the corporation's guilt—it's paltry in the face of such negligence and devastation, charged the Nigerian environmental organization Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF).

The organization said in a statement: "When compared to what polluting oil companies pay elsewhere for their ecological crimes, HOMEF sees the compensation which will amount to about N600,000 for each of the plaintiffs with the balance going for community projects—school blocks and health centres—as inadequate for the severity of damage done."

HOMEF director Nnimmo Bassey added:

The fishermen cannot hope to return to fishing in the Bodo rivers and creeks because of the depth of hydrocarbon pollution resulting from the oil spills. Although the amount being offered each fisherman is better than the pittance that Shell initially offered to pay, this can hardly purchase a good fishing boat and equipment necessary to return to the fishing business that the people know best—that is if they chose to move to other communities with cleaner waters in which to fish. Sadly, although the Bodo pollution also damaged the Goi community waters that community continues to languish in abject neglect without remedy.

Audrey Gaughran, director of global issues at Amnesty International, echoed that sentiment. "While the pay-out is a long awaited victory for the thousands of people who lost their livelihoods in Bodo, it shouldn’t have taken six years to get anything close to fair compensation," she said. "In effect, Shell knew that Bodo was an accident waiting to happen. It took no effective action to stop it, then it made false claims about the amount of oil that had been spilt. If Shell had not been forced to disclose this information as part of the UK legal action, the people of Bodo would have been completely swindled."

Chief Mene Sylvester Kogbara, chairman of the Bodo Council of Chiefs and Elders, told BBC he hopes the community money will go toward education, agriculture, and health programs.

"We don't have a water supply," he told BBC reporter Will Ross, who added:

These are surely things that should have been taken care of by successive governments that have for decades squandered Nigeria's oil money.

It is a stark reminder of just how badly the people of the Niger Delta and the rest of this oil-rich country have been let down.

In 2013, the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International wrote that "An estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years. This amount is equivalent to about one 'Exxon Valdez' spill in the Niger Delta each year."

Now, fishermen hope that Shell will make good on its promise to clean up the Bodo Creek and surrounding areas. Chief Kogbara said, "we are hopeful that the clean-up of the Bodo environment will follow suit in no distant time."

And Amnesty International is calling on Shell to fix its crumbling infrastructure.

"Thousands more people remain at risk of future oil spills because of Shell’s failure to fix its ageing and dilapidated pipelines," the human rights group said in a statement.

"Oil pollution in the Niger Delta is one of the biggest corporate scandals of our time," Gaughran added. "Shell needs to provide proper compensation, clear up the mess and make the pipelines safer, rather than fighting a slick PR campaign to dodge all responsibility."

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