A Nigerian village on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in US federal court against Royal Dutch Shell PLC [corporate website] alleging the oil company polluted a drinking water well with benzene at levels 900 times the limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO) [official website]. The lawsuit is based on a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) [official website] report [materials] assessing the impact of oil contamination on the environment and public health in Ogoniland, a village in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The report, which was published in August, found high levels of the carcinogen benzene as well as several inches of refined oil floating in groundwater that the village uses for drinking water. The UN investigators suggested that both Royal Dutch Shell and the Nigerian state-run oil company were responsible for the pollution, though Royal Dutch Shell abandoned the area in 1993. The complaint, which was filed in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan [official website], contends that Royal Dutch Shell's actions were willfully negligent [AFP report] in contaminating groundwater. The plaintiffs filed suit on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) [text] grounds and are asking for $1 billion in damages, an injunction and immediate cleanup.
The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari in two cases last week to determine whether political organizations and oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, are immune from US lawsuits [JURIST report] under the ATS. The plaintiffs in both cases allege human rights violations against an entity other than an individual person and the circuit courts have reached conflicting decisions with respect to interpretations of the ATS. The Supreme Court's decision will likely have an impact on the outcome of the Nigerian villagers' lawsuit. This case in not the first time Shell has faced legal action in Nigeria, however. A $15.5 million settlement [JURIST report] was reached in June 2009 between Royal Dutch Shell and the families of nine Nigerian activists who were killed in 1995. In 2006, a Nigerian court ordered Shell to pay [JURIST report] $1.5 billion for its role in environmental damages that took place within the country. In January, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] reversed [JURIST report] a district court opinion, reviving two lawsuits brought by Nigerian families against Pfizer under the ATS.