Nigerian residents are suing Chevron Corp., one of the world’s six largest oil companies, over a 2012 offshore gas exploration rig explosion that killed 2 workers. Chevron was presented with a $5 billion lawsuit in California federal court on Monday, Law360 reports.

In January 2012, Chevron’s KS Endeavour drilling rig exploded approximately 6 miles of the coast of Nigeria, the largest oil producer in Africa. Early reports indicated that the deadly explosion and subsequent gas fire were partly the result of a failed blow out preventer, as was the case in BP’s 2010 Gulf oil spill.

The BBC reported that 2 workers had been killed in the explosion. A gas-fueled fire, with flames as high as 16 ft., burned in an approximately 130-ft.-wide area on the surface of the Atlantic off the Nigerian coast.  Chevron told the BBC that the fire could burn for months.

The company planned to put out the fire by drilling a hole in the original gas well, through which cement could be poured. “There’ll be 10,000 ft. of drilling and interestingly we need to hit an area that is approximately 12 sq. inches,” a Chevron official told the BBC. “It’s going to take some time, but I cannot predict how long that is going to be – conceivably months.”

Residents in coastal towns close to the fire were temporarily relocated due to concerns about food and water contamination. The fire burned for 46 days until March 2, 2012. The relief well Chevron drilled was sealed on June 18.

In July 2012, Reuters reported that Chevron left workers “pleading to be evacuated from a gas exploration platform off Nigeria which kept drilling while smoke poured from a borehole until an explosion killed two people as the rig became engulfed in flames.”

The offshore branch of Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union gave Reuters transcripts of three testimonies from workers on the KS Endeavour. According to one of the accounts, “Chevron knew for over a week that the well was unstable yet they refused to evacuate us.”

A senior witness who gave testimony to the RMT union said that a series of pump failures led to a massive build-up of pressure that caused the blowout. He also said that rig engineers held a meeting in which they advised Chevron to evacuate staff while they tried to get the pressure under control. Another worker said that many on the rig wanted to be evacuated.

“That advice was not heeded and additional personnel were even brought onboard to get ahead of what was believed to be impending strike action,” the senior witness, who was at the meeting, said in his testimony.

“At almost every point in time, we saw thick smoke coming out of the open hole, and we were all scared like hell because we could see a disaster happening any moment yet they (Chevron) did not evacuate us,” he said. “That is the reason so many of us survived because we were all aware that it was going to happen, but just didn’t know when.”

The plaintiffs in the suit are leaders of Niger Delta communities who represent the interests of thousands of locals whose land and waters were contaminated by the disaster. The complaint alleges that Chevron willfully refused or failed to halt drilling operations after receiving reports of equipment failures and smoke and gas build-up that lead to the explosion and subsequent leakage of hydro-carbon gases.

“Chevron [was] primarily concerned with profit while disregarding public and environmental health and safety when undertaking their ultra-hazardous activities on the KS Endeavour by continuing drilling on the gas borehole in the teeth of physical and verbal warnings of impending and imminent danger,” the suit says.

Plaintiffs allege that expert reports have determined that the disaster caused “significant environmental impacts” including the contamination of water, soil, and air and the deaths of fish and livestock. According to Law360, the suit brings claims for negligence, gross negligence, negligence per se, nuisance, and willful misconduct over alleged “violations of several Nigerian energy exploration and land-use statutes.”

Plaintiffs chose to file suit in California (where Chevron Corp. is headquartered) rather than Nigeria because of the “wholly unreliable functioning judiciary” in Nigeria. Unfortunately, there are plentiful examples throughout the world of negligence by multinational oil and gas corporations – some of the largest corporations in the world.

Although lawsuits are undesirable to large corporations due to the potential negative PR they can attract, they are usually not financially-threatening and therefore offer little incentive for companies to engage in safe business practices rather than putting profit over worker and environmental safety.

Chevron is the third-largest oil producer in Nigeria. In its 2012 annual report, the company stated a net income of $26.2 billion on sales and $231 billion for other operating revenues.

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.