Long before a Shell Petroleum Development Company pipeline spilled up to 21 million gallons of oil in southern Nigeria, employees warned the company that the same pipeline was at risk of leaking, according to internal documents seen by the BBC and reported Wednesday.
The documents, also seen by The Guardian, show that the company received warnings at least two years before the spills that the Trans Niger Pipeline — then more than 30 years old — was of “immediate and utmost concern” and should be replaced.
“There is a risk and likelihood of rupture on this pipeline at any time, which if it happens, could have serious consequences for the safety of life, the environment and the nation’s economy,” read a 2006 letter from Basil Omiyi, managing director of Shell’s Nigeria business.
A Shell spokesperson dismissed the accusation that it ignored warnings about the pipeline before the devastating spills, which severely disrupted the lives of approximately 69,000 people living in Bodo, Nigeria. “[Shell] dismisses the suggestion that it has knowingly continued to use a pipeline that is not safe to operate,” it told the BBC.
Shell has long been accused of trying to downplay and cover up its spills in Nigeria, most notably by maintaining that much of the damage was caused by locals sabotaging its pipeline. Shell has also blamed amateur and illegal oil refiners for some of the damage.
Still, where to place the blame does not take away from the suffering of the Niger Delta region, particularly Bodo, at the hands of the two 2008 oil spills. According to a 2011 Amnesty International report, the spill severely impacted the price and availability of food, and the quality of drinking water. Immediately following the spill, villagers were bathing children in water contaminated by crude oil.
The lower quality of life is contributing to unrest as well, and social tensions are rising. According to Amnesty International, “more young people are starting to take part in illegal activities to earn a living, such as stealing crude oil (known as bunkering) and illegally refining oil. Such activities may have exacerbated pollution in the area.”
Those and other issues are why 15,000 villagers living near Bodo are suing the company. The documents obtained by the Guardian and BBC are part of that lawsuit, which seeks money for clean-up, plus extra damages, and maintains that illegal oil refining in the region only happens after the spills.
Shell has admitted to being at fault for the spills, but disagrees that up to 21 million gallons of oil were spilled. According to The Guardian, Shell claims that only 168,000 gallons were spilled, and that the rest came from pipeline sabotage.
The company has said it will pay “just and reasonable” compensation to the residents affected. At the same time, in its annual 2013 report to investors, Shell said it believes the “disputes” in Nigeria “will ultimately be resolved in a manner favorable to Shell.”