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Nigerians file suit against Shell in Dutch court

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — An environmentalist group and four Nigerians filed suit against Royal Dutch Shell PLC in the Netherlands on Friday, claiming the company was negligent in cleaning up oil spills in Nigeria.

The civil suit filed by the four men and Friends of the Earth is unusual in that it seeks to hold Shell’s parent company liable for damages allegedly caused by its Nigerian subsidiary.

The Anglo-Dutch company is the largest of the major oil companies working in the African nation, which 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 made their way through the judicial labyrinth to a conclusion leading to compensation, Friends of the Earth spokeswoman Anne van Schaik said.

“It’s very hard to get justice in Nigeria,” she said. “People run out of time, they run out of breath.”

She said the organization hoped that winning a case in a Dutch court would force Shell to act more quickly to clean spills and compensate victims — or risk a flood of claims in the Netherlands.

Shell spokesman Andre Romeyn declined comment on the case Friday, saying the company needed time to study the complaint. He added it might never comment while proceedings are ongoing, to protect its legal position.

Shell has closed down most of its operations in Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta, due to attacks on personnel and infrastructure. It continues to produce at offshore facilities.

Alali Efanga, who traveled to the Netherlands from the village of Oruma to file the suit, said thousands of villagers had been sickened by oil that leaked from a pressurized underground pipeline running through nearby jungle.

He said Shell noticed the leak on June 26, 2005, but took 12 days to fix it.

Fruit trees, cassava crops and waterways for miles (kilometers) around were spoiled, including Efanga’s own fish ponds, he said.

“I cannot restock them — the crude is still there,” he said.

Shell’s 2007 environmental report says its cleanup efforts in Nigeria were slowed because the Nigerian government was unable to pay its share — it owns 55 percent of the joint venture Shell operates there.

However, Van Schaik said Shell’s headquarters sets the company’s environmental policy and is responsible for ensuring it is carried out.

Lawyers for the Nigerians expect the first court hearings in February.

Many oil leaks in Nigeria are caused by criminals tapping into the vast network of aboveground pipes and tubes, and siphoning crude for resale to black-market traders.

Job-seeking villagers also may purposely cause leaks, then demand oil companies pay them clean up fees, or “security contracts” 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.

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