THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Nigerian villagers and a Dutch environmental group pleaded with a Hague court Thursday to hear their case against Royal Dutch Shell PLC for allegedly polluting their land with oil that gushed from a broken pipeline.
The case at The Hague Civil Court is unusual in that it seeks to hold the Dutch-based multinational responsible for environmental devastation allegedly caused in Nigeria by its Nigerian subsidiary.
Lawyer Michel Uiterwaal told the judges Thursday that Shell and its Nigerian arm are so closely linked that the court would be justified in taking the case. He was representing Friends of the Earth and villagers Alali Efanga and Fidelis Oguru.
Shell argues that the case should be heard in Nigeria.
"We believe this is a legal responsibility case aimed at a Nigerian company with Nigerian installations on Nigerian territory where Nigerian law is applicable," said Shell spokesman Andre Romeyn.
Thursday's hearing did not go into the merits of the case, but focused only on whether a Dutch court can accept it. A decision is expected either late this year or early in 2010.
Villagers say the June 2005 leak pumped out hundreds of barrels of oil that fouled fish ponds, farmland and forests in Oruma, in the Niger Delta. They claim Shell took 12 days to seal the leaking pipe.
Villagers blame the leak on corrosion of the pressurized underground pipe. Shell claims it was caused by sabotage.
Criminals tapping into pipes to siphon off crude oil and sell it on the black market are blamed for many Nigerian oil leaks. Job-seeking villagers also may purposely cause leaks, then demand oil companies pay them clean up fees, or to "protect" the tubes.
By some estimates, 10 percent of Nigeria's declared 2 million barrel per day production is lost to thieves and the leaking pipes they leave behind.
Sunny Ofehe, who leads a Dutch-based group called "Hope for the Niger Delta Campaign," said the case was a legal landmark for farmers in Nigeria.
"Shell should first and foremost compensate farms that have been destroyed by the oil spill," Ofehe told The Associated Press outside the courtroom.
But he said the case also seeks to push Shell into "proper corporate responsibility in the Niger Delta."
Shell's operations in the African nation are the largest of the major oil companies working there. Nigeria produces 3 percent of the world's oil.
More than 500 pollution cases have been filed in Nigerian courts against Shell Nigeria, but few have led to compensation, according to Friends of the Earth.