Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to a $84m (£55m) settlement with residents of the Bodo community in the Niger Delta for two oil spills.
Lawyers for 15,600 Nigerian fishermen say their clients will receive $3,300 each for losses caused by the spills.
The remaining $30m will be left for the community, which law firm Leigh Day says was “devastated by the two massive oil spills in 2008 and 2009”.
They say they affected thousands of hectares of mangrove in south Nigeria.
The settlement was announced by the Anglo-Dutch oil giant’s Nigerian subsidiary SPDC.
“From the outset, we’ve accepted responsibility for the two deeply regrettable operational spills in Bodo,” its managing director Mutiu Sunmonu said. Shell says that both spills were caused by operational failure of the pipelines.
However, the company maintains that the extent of environmental pollution in the area is caused by “the scourge of oil theft and illegal refining”.
It also suggested that earlier settlement efforts had been hampered “by divisions within the community”.
The law firm representing the Nigerian fishermen and their community, Leigh Day, described it as one of the largest payouts to an entire community after devastating environmental damage.
“It is the first time that compensation has been paid following an oil spill in Nigeria to the thousands of individuals who have suffered loss,” the firm said in a press release confirming the development.
The deal, which ends a three-year legal battle, is the first of its kind in Nigeria, it added.
Leigh Day also said that Shell had pledged to clean up the Bodo Creek over the next few months.
Lawyer Martyn Day, who represents the claimants, said it was “deeply disappointing that Shell took six years to take this case seriously and to recognise the true extent of the damage these spills caused to the environment and to those who rely on it for their livelihood”.
An Amnesty International report into the effects of the oil spills in Bodo, a town in the Ogoniland region, said that the spills had caused headaches and eyesight problems.
The price of fish, a local staple food, rose as much as tenfold and many fishermen had to find alternative ways to make a living, the report added. A separate UN study said local drinking water sources were also contaminated.
The two spills came from the same pipe on the Trans Niger Pipeline, operated by Shell, which takes oil from its fields to the export terminal at Bonny on the coast. It carries about 180,000 barrels of oil per day.