Industries, such as Tema Oil Refinery, sit on the edge of the lagoon, discharging waste into the water. Photo: Corporate Social Responsibility Movement

It didn’t make the international news, and chances are you haven’t heard about it in a while, but in May 2007, government-owned Tema Oil Refinery on the Chemu II Lagoon in Tema, Ghana, had a massive oil spill. The lagoon flows into the Gulf of Guinea, so the contamination spread to saltwater mangroves, fisheries, and bird habitat.

In June, ELAW partners at the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) filed suit to defend the rights of local fisherfolk left destitute by the polluted waterway.

Last month, CEPIL attorney Rockson Akugre visited the ELAW office in Eugene and gave a presentation that included details about the ongoing case against Tema Oil Refinery. Rockson noted that people who have settled near the lagoon are being denied their right to a clean environment. The spill has affected their health and their livelihoods.

CEPIL attorney Rockson Akugre while in Eugene for a 2011 ELAW Fellowship

CEPIIL’s suit asks for the  following:

“(a) A declaration that the defendant was negligent in spilling oil into the Chemu lagoon;

(b) A declaration that the oil spillage into the Chemu lagoon is a violation of the rights of the inhabitants of Chemu particularly the rights of those who are settled along the banks of the lagoon to a clean and healthy environment under the constitution and under international law;

(c) An order enjoining the defendant to clean up the Chemu lagoon under the supervision of the EPA;

(d) An order of perpetual injunction to restrain the defendant from further pollution of the aforesaid lagoon through oil spillage or other means.”

Tema Oil attempted to have the case dismissed, by claiming that CEPIL did not have standing to sue on behalf of the lagoon or the local people, calling the plaintiffs “busybodies seeking cheap popularity.”

The judge ultimately ruled that CEPIL did in fact have standing to sue, saying that CEPIL “says it is in the business of protecting human rights and litigating on public interest issues. Public interest litigation seems to be a new concept in our jurisprudence and it ought, in my considered opinion, to be encouraged. I believe it is an antidote to the problem of direct victims of acts of environmental degradation or pollution being unable to take such cases to court.”

For the last 3.5 years, the community has waited as legal hurdles have delayed the case.  CEPIL and the local community now have cause for hope.

In recent weeks, a lawyer for Tema Oil Refinery made a motion to have a section of his client’s statement of defense amended, specifically the paragraph where TOR admits to “occasional spills” in Chemu Lagoon.

The current section in question reads:

“occasional spills in insignificant quantities from its refinery cannot be the cause of the alleged level of pollution and annihilation of all life forms in the Chemu Lagoon mentioned in the pleadings of the plaintiffs.”

The presiding judge of the Tema High Court dismissed the application to amend the statement of defense. The case is set for trial on Tuesday, May 3.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager