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DOWN TO EARTH, September 1999

The East Kalimantan Kelian gold mine, which is 80% owned by international mining giant Rio Tinto, is still causing serious pollution problems which endanger the local community’s health. Rio Tinto’s Chairman, Robert Wilson assured shareholders last year that the 1997 Health, Safety and Environment Report would be available for the Annual General Meeting. The report was ‘not ready’ for the London or Melbourne AGMs in May, denying concerned shareholders the opportunity to question the board on Rio Tinto’s poor environmental record in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world.

Rio Tinto’s 1997 Health, Safety and Environment Report reveals that there is a massive acid drainage problem at the Kelian mine. Levels of manganese in water discharged from the mine last year averaged 0.8 milligrammes per litre. This would not be allowed in drinking water in Europe or North America and exceed WHO recommended limits of 100-500 microgrammes per litre (see details below). On nine occasions in 1997 (and 105 occasions in 1996), manganese levels were more than 200 times the amount permitted in drinking water under European Union Directives (50 microgrammes/l). Rio Tinto’s research unit is investigating methods of reducing manganese pollution, but a new method currently under trials will not be implemented at Kelian until 1999 at the earliest.

Waste water from the mine also contained over 500kg of cyanide in 1997. This is almost half the cyanide emissions for the previous year, but Kelian still has by far the worst cyanide pollution levels of any Rio Tinto gold or copper mine. Cyanide compounds are used to extract the gold from the ore. Rio Tinto implies that high cyanide levels are not a problem since ‘any residual free cyanide breaks down rapidly in the presence of sunlight and does not persist in the environment’.

The Kelian mine also releases huge quantities of ‘suspended solids’ into the river from which it takes its name. These are fine particles of soil and rock produced during processing the ore and from surface water draining from the site. At 1,600 tonnes, the amount of suspended solids in the water discharged by PT KEM is the second highest of all Rio Tinto’s operations world wide. In 1996, levels of suspended solids were even higher at 4,700 tonnes as PT KEM diverted part of the River Kelian. Nevertheless, Rio Tinto puts much of the blame for the high turbidity of the river water on the operations of small-scale community miners.

PT KEM takes over 6 million cubic metres of fresh water from the Kelian river for their mining operations. Only some 4 million cubic metres is recycled within the mine. The waste water which contains high levels of metal ions such as manganese, cyanide compounds and is thick with mud is discharged into the Kelian river.

PT KEM has had to provide drinking water supplies for the local population since the start of its operations in the early 1990s. However, not all the indigenous people or more recent settlers have access to piped drinking water and the River Kelian is used for all other household and agricultural needs including bathing, laundry and preparing food.

The original contract in 1985 between the Indonesian Government and PT KEM gave the company mining rights lasting 30 years over an area of 286,233 hectares – most of which is covered with primary and secondary tropical rainforest. Rio Tinto’s 1997 Health, Safety and Environment Report states that the total amount of land used so far for the mine is 786 hectares. However, correspondence between the company and Down to Earth in February 1997 showed that 1,200ha of forest had already been cleared. The company claims to have rehabilitated over 500 hectares of land to date. It does not mention in this report that the ‘rehabilitation’ consists largely of planting non-native tree species several hundred kilometres away in the Bukit Suharto Park – much of which went up in flames in this year’s forest fires.

Rio Tinto makes much in its 1997 report of the humanitarian aid it is providing for people affected by last year’s drought and this year’s fires in the area around the mine (along with the Australian, Canadian, British and New Zealand embassies plus the charity Care International) and its long term contribution to health and education. This does not detract from the way that it has deprived the indigenous community of its land rights, destroyed substantial areas of rainforest and is polluting the surrounding environment. Indonesian environmentalists fear that when the mine closes early in the next decade, Rio Tinto’s legacy will be a devastated environment which the company has admitted it cannot rehabilitate. It could also leave a ‘pollution time bomb’ slowly poisoning the local population as metals leached from the mine enter the water supply.

For copies of a report produced by the local community affected by the PT KEM mine and their demands to Rio Tinto, please contact Down to Earth. (available in English and Bahasa Indonesia).

For a copy of Rio Tinto’s 1997 Health, Safety and Environment Report contact the External Affairs Department, Rio Tinto plc, 6 St James’s Square, London SW1Y 4LD, England tel +44 171 930 2399
fax +44 171 753 2288


NB 1000 microgrammes = 1 milligramme

EU Directive 75/440 on guidelines for levels of metal ions
in surface water for abstraction: (Manganese)

50 microgrammes per litre No treatment required.
100 microgrammes per litre Some treatment required (e.g. coagulation; floculation)
1 milligramme per litre Maximum level which should be considered as extractable
Requires extensive treatment before use.

EU Directive 80/778 on levels of metal ions which can be in water
for human consumption after treatment (Manganese):

                            Guidelines: 20 microgrammes per litre
                            Mandatory maximum limit: 50 microgrammes per litre

WHO Recommendations (Manganese): 100-500 microgrammes per litre

USA mandatory maximum limits: depending on state legislation: 100-500 microgrammes per litre

Canada mandatory maximum limits: 50 microgrammes per litre

CIS maximum limits: 100 microgrammes per litre for drinking water 10 microgrammes per litre for fisheries

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