During the loading procedure of an oil tanker at Shell’s Bonga oil field off the coast of Nigeria, an estimated 40,000 barrels of crude oil leaked into the sea on December 20th, 2011. Since then, a group of 27,800 individuals and 457 local communities have been trying to sue Shell. Their argument is that the results have contaminated their waterways and lands, ultimately damaging their fisheries, farms, drinking water, mangroves, and religious shrines. But legal action was not taken until six years after the incident, which is apparently outside of the jurisdictional time frame and their actionable time limit expired. Now, 12 years later, Shell has won the court case against the Nigerian claimants.
The case stated that the ongoing consequences of the pollution represented a continuing nuisance, a civil statement that would usually be used to eradicate the expiring deadline and make it invalid. Unfortunately, the judging Supreme Court did not see it that way and rejected the claimants’ submissions. Shell also disputed that the spill did not affect the Bonga shoreline or any neighboring communities. At the time, Shell stated that the spill was quickly contained and cleaned up–no further action was necessary.
This current case mirrors a similar oil spill incident in February of 2021 off the coast of the Niger Delta. It called for 42,500 farmers and fishermen to take legal action against Shell, and the Supreme Court ruled in the communities favor. The case is currently going through the High Court. Another 2015 case had Shell pay $70 million in oil spill compensation to the Bodo communities in Delta, after a strenuous legal battle in London. But what made these cases different? The time deadline completely exempted the 2011 case from being analyzed or thought over–something that should not be a factor in deciding the outcomes of environmental disasters.
After an oil spill, not all oil dies at the surface, in fact up to 30% is absorbed into the surrounding sediments, sand, suspended materials, and even marine habitats. Wind and water current speeds also break down the oil allowing it to gain more distance than it should. Sediments and filter feeders such as plankton, hold onto the oil deposits, eventually discarding them at the bottom of the sea after extraction. And due to lack of oxygen at that depth, decomposition of said oil becomes almost impossible. Not only can oil stay within waters for years after a spill, it can latch onto any moving object within, contaminating anything in its path. The 2011 case, or any other environmental subjected case, should not have a time limit on repercussions due to the everlasting lifespan nature of the event.