New pollution study corners Newmont

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

The latest and most comprehensive government-sponsored study into pollution at Newmont's gold mine in North Sulawesi, has linked the US-based company's mining activities to ill-health in the local community and declining fish stocks in Buyat Bay. The question now is: will the new government make a break with the past, protect its citizens and take legal action against Newmont, or will the pollution victims' needs be subordinated to the interests of the powerful international mining fraternity and the push to improve Indonesia's investment climate?

The latest pollution study, conducted by a government-convened Joint Investigation Team, found that levels of arsenic and mercury in fish in Buyat Bay, near PT Newmont Minahasa Raya's gold mine in North Sulawesi, posed health risks for the local community, especially for children. It recommended that villagers reduce their fish consumption and that the possibility be considered of moving the community out of Buyat Bay. Around 300 people live on the shores of the bay and depend on fishing for their main protein supply and their livelihoods.

The study, which was presented to the government in early November, found that Newmont's disposal of mine tailings under the sea had affected the marine life in Buyat Bay and recommended that legal action should be taken over the company's breaches of environmental law. This is the most recent of a number of pollution tests which have had contradictory results - leading to conflicting claims and denials by environmental NGOs and the mining company.

The newest investigation, which involved government departments, university scientists and NGO representatives, found extremely high levels of mercury and arsenic in the seabed sediment. Levels of 666 mg/kg were around 100 times higher than those found in control sites. Mercury pollution in the seabed averaged at over 1000 µg/kg. Buyat Bay was found to be polluted with both arsenic and mercury according to ASEAN Marine Water Quality Criteria[1].

Seabed-dwelling marine creatures (benthos) such as crabs, mussels and worms, were also found to be accumulating mercury - samples contained 1889 µg/kg, ten times higher than in control samples. A poor diversity index of benthos and phytoplankton - a crucial part of the human food chain - was linked to the high level of arsenic found in the sediment at Buyat Bay[2].

Based on their actual fish consumption of 0.45 kg/day, the investigation team calculated that the Buyat Bay community was exposed to an unacceptably dangerous level of inorganic arsenic. The team also calculated mercury in the fish intake, concluding that consuming fish from Buyat Bay is risky for adults and exceeds the tolerable level for children.

The Team drew attention to initial field observations suggesting that the local people who have fallen ill display symptoms which may match the literature for arsenic accumulation in the body. It recommended follow-up research by the Health Ministry to look into arsenic poisoning in villagers complaining of symptoms such as skin disease, lumps, breathing difficulties and dizziness.

Previously, NGO and media attention had focused on levels of mercury pollution - raising the possibility of Minimata disease in the community of Buyat Bay. It could well be that the combination of aresnic, mercury and other chemicals, rather than any one substance is a danger to people's health.

The investigation team also found that:

  • There is no protective thermocline layer - a temperature gradient below which the colder denser salt water cannot rise to the surface - contrary to Newmont's claims in its environmental impact assessment. Newmont says a thermocline layer at 50-70 metres depth[3] would act as a barrier to keep the tailings from spreading into the biological productive layers nearer the surface in Buyat Bay.
  • Newmont's dumping of mine waste into the sea breached Government Regulation No 19/1994 on Dangerous and Toxic Waste Management, plus two other regulations issued in 1999 (No.19 and No. 85).
  • Since Newmont's waste dumping has had an impact on marine life in Buyat Bay, Newmont and the government should monitor the situation over the next 30 years or until Buyat Bay recovers naturally.
  • Ocean dumping of waste should not be used in future.
  • Some of the Joint Team results matched previous NGO, government and academic investigations.


Newmont denies pollution 

The Denver-based multinational and world's biggest gold producer, Newmont, insists its mining operations have not caused pollution in Buyat Bay. However, the company's claims are based on seawater tests which do not show high levels of pollution. The Joint Team's latest findings also find no evidence of pollution in the seawater, but they do indicate that hazardous chemicals are entering the food chain nevertheless.

Newmont claims that high arsenic levels in the tailings were expected and were planned for all along. The arsenic was in a chemically stable form locked into the sediment and not released into the environment. The company's vice president for environmental management, Dave Baker, claimed the system had worked as designed - eight years of company monitoring showed arsenic concentrations in seawater to be well below Indonesian and international standards.

Baker also told the New York Times that Newmont disagreed with the way the arsenic and mercury levels in the fish were calculated and that the company believed that the benthos is not polluted. In a statement to the media, Baker claimed that "all scientific studies and PT NMR's monitoring data have shown that fish tissue contain normal levels of arsenic as compared to both applicable standards and fish from any other areas in the world. This adds further confirmation that arsenic from the tailings is not being released from the sediment or assimilated into the food chain." ( 9/Nov/04) 
An independent American scientist, who advises the mining industry and environmental groups and was asked by the New York Times to review the findings, disputed Newmont's position, stating that seabed-dwelling organisms were indeed capable of consuming contaminants like arsenic, even as solid particles.


High profile test case

The Newmont case has attracted a substantial amount of media coverage. This was spurred by the death of a five-month old baby in July this year and findings that over thirty people may have died as a result of pollution from the mine (see DTE 62). In August, villagers, including the bereaved mother, filed a US$ 543 million lawsuit against the company, on the grounds that their health had been seriously affected. The two sides are reported to be in mediation.

Media interest was further fuelled by the police questioning of PT Newmont Minahasa Raya's president director Richard Ness and the month-long detention of five Newmont executives - three Indonesians, an American and an Australian. Their detention, was publicly criticised by the US embassy in Jakarta. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the investigation team's findings, the company launched its own media campaign to convince the public it was not polluting Buyat Bay, taking out a series of full page adverts in Indonesian newspapers. The Team's report recommended that Newmont be instructed to remove all such "misleading advertisements." Other methods of spreading the word may also have been used: a New York Times journalist who attended a Newmont briefing found an envelope with five 50,000 rupiah notes (around US$30) tucked into her packet of briefing papers. Newmont said it would refrain from providing such "transportation reimbursements" to national reporters in order to avoid future misunderstandings.


What now?

The success in exposing Newmont's impacts shows that companies can no longer expect to get away with concealing bad practices. If the government and the judiciary decide to act on the Joint Team's recommendations - specifically on legal action and a ban on future submarine tailings disposal (STD) - they may also be obliged to look more closely at Newmont's operations on Sumbawa Island, West Nusa Tenggara province. Here a much larger and more valuable copper and gold mining operation - Batu Hijau - is dumping as much as fifty times more waste onto the seabed and is expected to do so for a further 15 years.

The tailings disposal recommendation may also affect the planned operations of at least four more foreign-owned mining companies, including PT Weda Bay Minerals' proposed cobalt mine on Halmahera Island, North Maluku. Other projects are planned by PT Ingold Maluku Satu in Central Maluku, PT Meares Soputan Mining in North Sulawesi and PT Jember Metal and Banyuwangi Minerals in East Java. The British-Australian-owned BHP-Billiton, which was previously reported to be planning to use STD in a major nickel-mining project on Gag Island, West Papua, has stated that it would not use the method, and also that it has not yet made a decision whether to go ahead with the mine.

NGOs have called for the Team's recommendations to be followed, but there are signs that the new government may not act as decisively as they hope. While it is encouraging that the complete report will be made publicly available, the new government will be under a lot of international pressure to continue the pro-industry stance of its predecessors. In October, an incomplete version of the study was released - without the team's permission - by the departing environment minister Nabiel Makarim, who indicated that there was no pollution. As reported in the New York Times, additional documents released with the Team's findings, show that the environment ministry had found alarming levels of arsenic in fish as long ago as 2000 and, in 2002, had demanded that Newmont take immediate steps to improve waste treatment.

Newly installed environment minister, Rachmat Witoelar, said "I don't want to be part of throwing investors out of Indonesia, and yet you have to give protection to the victims." This, then is the real test: carry on business as usual, allowing multinational companies a free hand, or make a stand to protect the villagers of Buyat Bay - as well as many, many more communities in existing and future minesites. The first option would be severely disappointing for such communities and for civil society which has made real progress in securing these findings and recommendations. However, the second option would also not be too surprising given the new president's keenness to attract more investment and his apparent lack of commitment to the environment.



1 According to an additional note from WALHI, the Bay is also polluted with arsenic and mercury according to US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand guidelines.
2 Information on neighbouring Ratatotok Bay was also gathered - see for more details.
3 Earlier reports mentioned the depth of the thermocline as 80-100 metres - see for example DTE 32:6.

(Source: Buyat Bay is polluted and a risk to the community: highlights of the joint investigation of Buyat Bay. WALHI/JATAM/ELSAM, 10/Nov/04; New York Times 9/Nov/04; Miningindo.com6/Aug/04; 9/Nov/04; Jakarta Post 10&11/Nov/04; Dow Jones Newswires via Joyo Indonesia News 21/Oct/04; AP 24/Sep/04; Kazinform/Antara 24/Sep/04).

For more information about the campaign for justice for the Buyat Bay community see


Poor performance

Throughout its eight years of commercial production (1996-2004), when the company began dumping 2,000 tonnes of tailings per day into Buyat Bay, the Newmont Minahasa Raya mine has been beset by protests and pollution problems. The list compiled from past issues of DTE newsletters alone is tellingly long:

1986: Newmont receives Contract of Work including the North Sulawesi and Sumbawa concessions (DTE 34:7).

1994: Legal action by villagers over compensation for land and crops (DTE 32:6).

1997: NGOs report Newmont to environmental protection agency Bapedal, in an attempt to stop pollution starting March 1996 and getting worse from July 1996. Local legal aid office (LBH) says it has received many complaints from local people about the pollution.

WALHI reports that local fishermen had found more than 200 dead fish floating around 200m from the end of the tailings disposal pipe (DTE35:5). Newmont receives government approval to start construction at Batu Hijau copper and gold mine, Sumbawa (DTE 34:7).

1998: Newmont forced to suspend production for several weeks due to leaking tailings pipe. The problem was detected after fish kills were reported by local fisherfolk (DTE 39:6).

1999: JATAM calls for Newmont Minahasa Raya's licence to be withdrawn due to pollution problems. Environment Minister Sarwono promises 'objective' and 'accurate' investigation [DTE 44).

Batu Hijau starts production using submarine tailings disposal method (STD), dumping 110,000 tonnes of waste per day into the sea (DTE 44 & JATAM - WALHI - KONTRAS -TAPAL - ELSAM press release, received 6/Aug/04)

1999: Official investigation carried out - high levels of heavy metals found; no thermocline found. WALHI and JATAM accuse the government of being concerned only about protecting foreign investors' interests and ignoring people's health by keeping the results of the investigation secret (DTE 45).

2000: Operations are forcibly suspended three times in three months when villagers blockade the minesite, demanding compensation for land (DTE 47).

A WALHI study of the marine ecosystem finds that tailings have caused extensive damage to the marine ecosystem including corals, seagrass and fish stocks plus health impacts among local villagers. Community representatives attend Newmont annual shareholders meeting in Denver. Newmont denies pollution claims. JATAM claims Bapedal never issued a permit for Newmont to dump tailings at sea. Problems with river sedimentation are also reported.

At Batu Hijau mine, a local NGO reports that a waste mud containment dam has collapsed, sending mud downriver, covering farmland. Newmont says the water was deliberately flushed from the dam and it met pollution standards. Samples from around the tailings disposal site in Senunu Bay showed high levels of heavy metals (DTE 47).

2001: WALHI announces results of blood tests on local villagers showing high levels of arsenic and mercury - Newmont blames local illegal miners for pollution (DTE 48).

Environment minister Sonny Keraf announces no more STD permits after Newmont's and rejects the company's Environmental Risk Assessment (which should have been done before operations started five years previously) as the company failed to use procedures agreed with the government (DTE 50)

2003: Newmont agrees to verify WALHI study which finds that cyanide levels in mine tailings are four times the legal safety limit, endangering local people's health (DTE 58).

2004: JATAM launches urgent action to support community demands for land compensation, environmental rehabilitation, economic compensation for loss of fishing livelihood and health services for the next 30 years (

Villagers report Newmont to police after death of five month-old baby in July (DTE 62).

[Note: this is not a comprehensive chronology. For further background see and]