Some experts say the two spills that started in 2008 caused the largest loss of a mangrove habitat ever caused by an oil spill, affecting about 30,000 inhabitants in the Niger Delta area since then, according to London-based law firm Leigh Day.
"These people, since 2008 they are living on a creek of oil. You step out of the front door you see oil, breathe in oil and toxic fumes," said lawyer Daniel Leader of Leigh Day, an international and human rights firm that is representing about 15,000 people from the community that filed a lawsuit in 2011.
Although Royal Dutch Shell has admitted responsibility for the two spills, the impact has been disputed and will be the main focus of negotiations in Port Harcourt.
Royal Dutch Shell says 4,100 barrels were lost in the two spills. That estimate is based on the initial investigations by representatives from the company and the local community, spokesman Jonathan French told The Associated Press.
"Having said all that, it doesn't matter how much was spilled because the compensation will be based on the financial loss that people have suffered because of the spill in the lagoon," he said. "And that is a matter of dispute between us and the claimant."
Leigh Day said that 15,000 fishermen and 31,000 inhabitants of 35 villages were affected in and around the Bodo lagoon and its associated waterways. The law firm says independent experts estimate between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels were spilled, which devastated the environment that sits in the midst of 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) of mangroves, swamps and channels.
"The majority of its inhabitants are subsistence fishermen and farmers. Until the two 2008 spills Bodo was a relatively prosperous town based on fishing," the firm said in a statement. The spills have destroyed the fishing industry and environment there, it said.
"Those communities are still having water shipped into them. But it's patchy, and we fear many of those communities are drinking from poisoned wells," Leader, the Leigh Day lawyer, said.
But Shell says such estimates are high, given the size of the lagoon.
"What we need to establish precisely, or nearly precisely, is how many people were materially affected by the spill," French said. That number, he said, would be determined in part by the company's contention that it did not have access to the area to clean it up. Shell also has blamed oil theft and criminal activity for further spill activity in the area.
Nigeria, one of the top crude oil suppliers to the United States, requires companies to promptly clean up oil spills but the policy is not enforced.
The villages are part of a region of Nigeria's Niger Delta known as Ogoniland. Crude production in Ogoniland stopped in 1993, but pipelines and flow stations operated by a Shell subsidiary and the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. still run through villages and fields.
Leader said that talks with Shell will "highlight the plight of the people and the environmental disaster in the Niger delta, and will add pressure on Shell to clean up."
The talks are scheduled to wrap up this week.
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