NGOs accuse Unocal

Down to Earth No. 45, May 2000

Environmental NGOs JATAM and WALHI have exposed the long-running problems of pollution near the site of US-based Unocal's oil and gas terminal.

On February 11th heavy rains caused a spillage from the company's waste facility at Tanjungsantan on the East Kalimantan coast. Oil wastes flooded into rice-fields and shrimp ponds farmed by local villagers and contaminated rivers and beaches in Marangkayu, Kutai district. The homes or farmlands of around 350 families were affected by the spill, according to the Indonesian mining advocacy network, JATAM.

Determined to prove the pollution, local people took a sample of contaminated water to a test lab in East Kalimantan's provincial capital, Samarinda. The sample was found to contain levels of oil, ammonia, mercury, phenol, sulphides and suspended solids which were higher than recommended limits for waste water. WALHI and JATAM then reported the pollution to the Jakarta government and provided details of the case to the Indonesian press.

Unocal has reacted aggressively, accusing JATAM of telling "big lies" and claiming in several newspapers, that the NGO was not to be trusted. The company denies its facilities are polluting the surrounding area, pointing to its waste management system which uses open land within its concession (Bio Remediation Area). The NGOs say that this type of waste treatment is not suitable as it is too near populated areas. They say it has not been approved by the government's environment department or the state environmental protection agency, Bapedal.

Long history

The pollution problems around Tanjungsantan are not new. The company secured a 20,700 hectare concession in East Kalimantan in 1968, during the first years of former President Suharto's rule. When it decided to build the Tanjungsantan terminal in 1970, local people were forced to move from their homes and farmlands. These had been established in the 1950s by migrants from South Sulawesi and ethnic Buginese still comprise the majority in the villages. Minimal compensation was paid by the company, but only for crops, since the land was classified as belonging to the state. In the usual pattern of land acquisition practised during the Suharto era, the military and police were used to intimidate villagers who tried to resist the evictions.

The Tanjungsantan terminal serves Unocal's rich oil and gas fields off the Kalimantan coast. There are storage and processing facilities at the site, as well as waste dumps and a flare which burns off waste gas 24 hours a day.

According to JATAM's research, villagers' fields and shrimp ponds and the mangroves and nipah palms have been affected badly by previous waste spillages, the most serious incidents being in 1990 and 1995. Air pollution from plant is also believed to be responsible for acid rain which damages ricelands. Cattle have died after drinking poisoned water and health problems in villages are attributed to the Unocal operations.


The Tanjungsantan villagers have tried to get Unocal to stop the pollution on many occasions, but without success. People from Marangkayu district held a number of protests last November after meetings with the company and local government failed to recognise their demands. The company has never taken responsibility for the damage.

Among other things, villagers are now demanding that Unocal:

  • pay compensation for land taken by the company;
  • provide fresh drinking water for villagers and improve village roads;
  • make good environmental damage and compensate villagers for the losses it has caused;
  • stop dumping waste in the sea; build an adequate containment barrier around the terminal.

If these demands are not met, say the villagers, the company should stop operations and leave Tanjungsantan, after restoring the environment to its original condition.

JATAM is asking for pressure to be applied on Unocal to fulfil community demands. It wants the Indonesian government to stop Unocal's operations until the technology has been introduced which safeguards against pollution and until its responsibilities toward the community and the environment have been fulfilled. JATAM also wants the government to take Unocal to court for committing environmental crimes.
For more information contact JATAM.

Unocal has been criticised internationally for its operations in Burma and elsewhere. Other oil and gas companies operating in East Kalimantan - Vico (USA) and Total (France) - have been the subject of recent protests by local people (see DTE 43:16).

(Source: Gali-Gali Nov/99; Kerebok, Feb/00; Tempo Interaktif 25/Mar/00; Berbagai Permasalahan di Sekitar Terminal Tanjung Santan Unocal, no date; Media Indonesia 9/Apr/00)

Selayar cancelled, Tangguh disputed

President Abdurrahman Wahid has announced the cancellation of a Kuwaiti oil refinery project on Selayar Island, Sulawesi, on environmental grounds. He said he has asked PT Hemoco Selayar International Oil Refinery to find another location for its US$2.4 billion oil refinery and petrochemical complex. This was because the company's operations would pollute the sea around Selayar and endanger its coral reefs. (Straits Times, 24/Apr/00)

In West Papua, the local environmental office says it has banned UK-US-owned PT Arco British Gas (ABG) from further exploration of its Tangguh gas fields, pending the submission of the report on its analysis of the likely consequences of its operations on the environment.

A local environment official said his office had asked ABG to make the analysis before exploring for gas, but so far the company had not handed in the results.
(Source:Indo MDB@EDF on 03/Mar/2000)