Newmont under siege

Down to Earth No. 47, November 2000

Newmont, the US-based mining company, has again come under fire at both its operations in Indonesia.

In North Sulawesi PT Newmont Minahasa Raya (80% owned by US mining giant Newmont) was forced to shut down operations at its Ratatotok gold mine three times in as many months. Former land-owners mounted a series of blockades an demanded compensation for land taken over by the company. PT Newmont denied there was any outstanding compensation to be paid and called on the district and provincial authorities and the local police to help end the blockades.

Around 50 farmers representatives from Minahasa district, where the mine is located, also protested at the provincial assembly and at the Governor's office in the district capital, Manado. They said they had never been paid proper compensation for the land lost and threatened to mount more blockades if their demands were not met. 
(Jakarta Post 8/Sep/00; 27/Sep/00)



Newmont has also been faced with mounting evidence of serious pollution problems caused by the dumping of large volumes of tailings on the sea-bed. A June study by environmental group WALHI found that sludge discharged from the under-sea waste pipe has caused extensive damage to the marine ecosystem including corals, sea-grass and reduced local fish stocks in Buyat Bay. Their investigation supports findings from a joint study with the local university which shows that the volume of tailings is making the sea-bed flatter and shallower and that sediment is dispersed over a far wider area than predicted in Newmont's disposal plans. The study also documented impacts on health among local villagers whose main livelihood is fishing.

Last year a three month study by a joint team formed by the local government and led by a local university professor found levels of heavy metals in the seawater higher than the legal limit. The presence of mercury and arsenic indicated high amounts of toxics disperses in the tailings, the report concluded. The team recommended that the tailings disposal system be redesigned, but no action was taken. WALHI has now called on the government to suspend operations at the mine until a new independent study has been carried out.

In June, environment minister Sonny Keraf instructed the company to conduct an 'environmental risk assessment' and to detoxify the tailings before dumping them under the sea.

According to Kerebok, the NGO mining newsletter produced by JATAM, the Indonesian government's environmental agency, Bapedal, never issued a permit for Newmont to dump its tailings at sea. Newmont was reported to be applying for this permit behind the scenes.

The mine's record has been further blighted by a number of incidents when the tailings pipe has burst, causing more damage to local fisheries. Back on land, there are problems with sedimentation in the Buyat river caused when mud is washed down from the mine site, increasing the likelihood of flooding. Newmont denies there are pollution problems at the mine. At the company's annual shareholder's meeting in Denver, USA, which was attended by community representatives from Buyat Bay as well as Peru and the Philippines, Newmont countered criticism by saying "the Indonesian government has said our water quality is excellent." Newmont claims that the 1999 team's finding are completely at odds with its own data and that a subsequent study prompted environmental regulators to conclude that the bay was not polluted. 
( 17/Aug/00; Walhinews various, July 00; Kerebok Vol 1, No. 2 June 2000; Jakarta Post 6/May/00)


Trouble at Batu Hijau

Newmont's other Indonesian mine, the Batu Hijau copper and gold operation on Sumbawa Island, has been under fire from environmentalists as well as from local NGOs apparently inspired by the current wave of anti-American sentiment in Indonesia. In October there was a suspected grenade attack on the company's office in Lombok. There were no casualties.

Before this attack, a local NGO grouping called Kollis threatened to take US citizens at the mine hostage if the US government continued to intervene in Indonesian affairs. The group's co-ordinator said they were also consolidating plans to prevent the passage of ships to the mine.

Indonesian nationalist sentiment has been channelled against the US and the World Bank since strong statements from the Clinton administration and World Bank president James Wolfensohn which condemned the killing of humanitarian workers in West Timor 
(see DTE IFIs Update 8 September 2000).

However, another local group, Newmont Watch, said local people believe that the attack was due to problems caused by the mine, not international issues or politics. 
(See Media Indonesia 3/Oct/00 in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts 4/Oct/00; MinenergyNews.Com 16/Oct/00)

The Batu Hijau mine is 45% owned by Newmont, with shareholders Sumitomo of Japan (35%) and Indonesian entrepreneur Yusuf Merukh through his company, PT Pukuafu Indah (20%). The first year of commercial production was recently completed.


Mud and tailings

In May, a local NGO reported that a dam containing waste mud from drilling operations had collapsed, resulting in a wave of mud rolling downriver and covering nearby farmland. Local people fled in panic - particularly since this was the dry season. A local inhabitant said there were fears that the mud had caused skin complaints including itching and rashes. Newmont Nusa Tenggara said the water, which met pollution standards, was deliberately flushed from the dam to reduce the volume of water and allow water from a tributary to flow into it. Environmental manager Todd White said the resulting increase in flow was less than the level during the wet season and had not caused flooding.

Mining advocacy network JATAM called on the Indonesian government to take action against the mining company and to refrain from officially opening the mine. The opening ceremony, led by the West Nusa Tenggara governor went ahead in June.

According to Tempo Interaktif, each day around 110,000 tonnes of tailings from the Batu Hijau mine are dumped on the sea-bed at a depth of about 100 metres. Pollution issues are handled jointly by the government's environmental protection agency (Bapedal), Yayasan Laut Biru ('Blue Sea Foundation') and the company itself. In July samples were taken from around the tailings disposal site in Senunu Bay and a number of other locations and were then sent for analysis at Environmental Impact Prevention Facility at Serpong, West Java. The results of previous tests by Yayasan Laut Biru, showed high levels of heavy metals, including chromium, cadmium, copper and lead. It was not yet clear, according to Bapedal, whether these were due to the tailings or to pollution from tankers passing through the Alas Straits. The results of the July testing will be compared with Yayasan Laut Biru's results (produced using their own equipment) and those of the company, which were produced at a different laboratory in Bogor.

Newmont Nusa Tenggara has been urged not to dump tailings in the Bay, says Bapedal, and is making efforts to recycle the waste for use in the construction industry.

( 30/May/00; 5&13/Jun/00; Jakarta Post 22/Sep/00; Kerebok Vol 1 No.2, June 2000; Tempo Interaktif 31/7/00)