The leaks in pipelines affected fish ponds and land in two villages, Oruma and Goi, and residents are still affected by the spills 15 years later, according to environmental groups.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, and Shell began exporting fields in the Niger Delta through its Nigerian subsidiary in the late 1950s. According to the company, it manages around 50 oil fields, five gas facilities and more than 3,000 miles of pipelines.
However, its activities have been reputationally damaging as well, and Shell and other oil companies such as Italian company Eni have long been followed by allegations of pollution in the area. In 1994, Bopp Van Dessel, head of environmental studies at Shell Nigeria, resigned, arguing that he felt unable to defend the company’s environmental record “without losing his personal integrity”.
“Every Shell site I’ve seen was dirty,” Van Dessel later said on British television. “I knew Shell had devastated the area.”
In 2008, a US cable released by WikiLeaks found that three-quarters of the pipelines in Nigeria were more than a decade overdue for replacement. Some had a life expectancy of 15 years after 30 years.
Shell and Eni have argued that most of the leaks were caused by sabotage. However, under Nigerian law, oil companies are responsible for ensuring effective standards of safety and practice.
“Sabotage, crude oil theft and illegal refining are major challenges in the Niger Delta,” said Bamidele Odugbesan, spokeswoman for the Shell subsidiary in Nigeria, in a statement sent by email. “Regardless of the cause, we clean up and remedy the situation, as we did with the spills in this case.”