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Landmark case: Nigerian villagers sue Shell over oil spills

Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images, file

A man walks near spilled crude oil in the Niger Delta swamps of Bodo, a village in the Nigerian oil-producing region of Ogoniland, in June 2010.

LONDON -- Around 11,000 Nigerian villagers who say their livelihoods were ruined in oil spills launched a legal battle Friday to seek compensation from Shell.

The case marks the first time any oil firm has faced claims in the U.K. from a community in the developing world for environmental damage caused by oil extraction operations, the villagers' lawyers said.

Shell, the largest international firm operating in Nigeria, admitted liability for two oil spills in August 2011. However, the two sides dispute the amount of oil spilled and the extent of the damage caused, one of the villagers' London-based lawyers told msnbc.com.

At the crux of the disagreement is whether the spills that devastated the area were due to so-called operational failures on the part of Shell, or if they were the result of sabotage, illegal refining and theft.

Farmers, fishermen
Shell Petroleum Development Company (Nigeria) has admitted responsibility for two spills amounting to around 4,000 barrels. 

However, experts representing people in the Bodo community, a network of 35 villages whose inhabitants were mainly subsistence fishermen and farmers, maintain that amount is closer to 600,000 barrels, one of the villagers' lawyers told msnbc.com.

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"We have urged them to have their expert work with our expert," said Martyn Day of law firm Leigh Day & Co. "But (Shell has) totally refused."

Day said that negotiations broke down last week.

'No need for the legal activity'
Shell spokesman Jonathan French told msnbc.com that the firm cannot discuss details of the legal process, but said the company was dismayed that the case was going to court.

"There really has been no need for the legal activity which has delayed the the payout and cleanup," he said. "We accepted responsibility at the earliest point we could ... there was no need for this firm of London solicitors to take action."

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"Nobody is saying is that there isn’t a problem with oil spills in the Niger Delta," French added. "The point is that there is this formula enshrined in Nigerian law that spells out level of compensation."

Instead of resorting to court, the villagers should have followed the process already in place in Nigeria, French said, adding that the involvement of law firms such as Leigh Day "can serve to delay compensation."

$1 billion cleanup tab in Nigeria oil mess, UN says

Shell paid out $4 million in compensation to victims of operational oil spills in 2009, and $1.7 million in 2010, French said.

Shell has been criticized for its behavior in Nigeria before.

In Aug. 2011, the United Nations released a report saying the company and the Nigerian government had contributed to 50 years of pollution in the Niger Delta that could need the world's largest ever oil cleanup. The work would take up to 30 years and require an initial tab estimated at $1 billion, the report said.

On February 17, Amnesty International issued a report saying that:

"Shell's failures persist despite significant evidence based calls on the company to make meaningful changes in the way it operates in the Niger Delta. In 2011 the evidence confronting Shell was confirmed in a ground-breaking study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that looked at the impact of oil pollution in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta. The UNEP report confirmed that serious environmental damage had occurred in Ogoniland, one area of the Niger Delta, over many years. It found systemic failures in Shell’s approach to cleaning up pollution and rehabilitating land, which have exposed tens of thousands of people to a sustained assault on their economic, social and cultural rights."