WASHINGTON – An independent study released this week by Indonesia’s Environment Ministry is fueling a major controversy over the practices of multinational companies in Indonesia just as its newly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is trying to promote foreign investment in his sprawling archipelago nation.
The report, which was commissioned by the Environment Ministry, found that sediment and fish in Buyat Bay in Sulawesi province are contaminated with mercury and arsenic at levels at levels that pose a human health risk, particularly to young children.
The report argued that the contamination appears to have been caused by mining operations carried out by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation at its Minahasa Raya gold mine which closed down at the end of August after eight years of operation.
Newmont has vehemently denied the findings of the report which conflict with an incomplete version released last month by the outgoing environment minister that found no pollution in the waters of Buyat Bay, a conclusion that Newmont claimed was a “complete vindication” of its position that its system of disposing of the mining tailings at the sea bottom was completely safe.
But that earlier version of the report failed to include the latest data on contamination of the sediment on the seabed which was found to contain an average of 338 parts per million. Those levels were about 100 times higher than at sites where no mining or tailings disposal had occurred.
The latest report, which was drafted by more than a dozen technical specialists, also found that levels the levels of arsenic found in fish in the area posed a risk to the health of both adults and children and that mercury is accumulating in seabed-dwelling, or benthic, organisms which form a critical part of the local food chain.
The report is almost certain to bolster a US$543 million lawsuit filed against Newmont in August by local villagers who claim that the pollution caused by the company’s mining activities has caused serious illnesses and other health problems, including skin disease, tumors, and birth defects and a decline in fish stocks. Fish are a major part of the local people’s diet.
One baby, who later died, was born deformed with lumps on much of her body, in their community, while other children suffer from skin diseases that cause ulcerated or peeling flesh.
The company has denied a connection between its activities and local health problems which it has attributed instead to poor nutrition and sanitation practices.
At the heart of the controversy is the way that the mine tailings are disposed in the sea. At the Minahasa mine, as at its much bigger Sumbawa mine, which opened in 1999, Newmont used a system known as “submarine tailing disposal” which deposits the treated mine waste through pipes directly onto the seabed, a practice that, according to a senior Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quoted in the New York Times Tuesday, is effectively banned in the United States.
Newmont maintains that the system is safe because the arsenic, the most toxic substance applied to the tailings, was of a kind that would not dissolve in water and enter the food chain.
But an independent expert consulted by the Times, Robert E. Moran, questioned that assertion, insisting that the benthic organisms were indeed capable of consuming contaminants like arsenic and passing them up the food chain and that Newmont had ignored evidence that “potentially toxic concentrations of chemicals, both in solution and as particles, are accumulating on the bottom of Buyat Bay.”
In spite of that, it appears that Newmont did not break Indonesia’s environmental laws which regulate heavy-metal contamination of the water, but not that of the sediment. All sides agree that the water in Buyat Bay is not contaminated.
In connection with the case filed in August, five Newmont executives were detained by investigating police in September. Their arrest provoked intervention by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, and they were released last month on condition that they not leave the province.
Their case, which has received considerable coverage in the Indonesian press, also drew attention in the international business circles that have been avidly courted by Indonesian government officials over the past year.
The new report concluded that the government should indeed prosecute Newmont officials responsible for permitting the alleged pollution to occur.
The fear that a tough report and possible legal action against Newmont might harm Jakarta’s prospects for new investment was addressed by the new environment minister, Witolear, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name. “I’d like to maintain my objectivity,” he told the Times. “I don’t want to be part of throwing investors out of Indonesia, and yet you have to give protection to the victims.”
The latter message was echoed by environmental activists who called for both the government and the company to compensate the local community.
“Communities shouldn’t have to pay the price for a technology of convenience,” said Radhika Sarin, international campaign coordinator for Earthworks, an international environmental group based in Washington. “Immediate action must be taken to restore the health and livelihood of Buyat villagers.”
© 2004 OneWorld.net