[Homestead] NYTimes.com Article: Spurred by Illness, Indonesians Lash Out at U.S. Mining Giant

tvoivozd at roanoke.infi.net tvoivozd at roanoke.infi.net
Thu Sep 9 09:03:56 EDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by tvoivozd at roanoke.infi.net.

Killer mining companies kill without mercy and without retribution whether they poison over seven hundred miles of streams in West Virginia or poison children in Indonesia---the former with the hearty approval of the Bush Administration who never saw an environmental disaster they do not like and admire.

tvoivozd at roanoke.infi.net

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Spurred by Illness, Indonesians Lash Out at U.S. Mining Giant

September 8, 2004


BUYAT BAY BEACH, Indonesia - First the fish began to
disappear. Then villagers began developing strange rashes
and bumps. Finally in January, Masna Stirman, aided by a
$1.50 wet nurse, gave birth to a tiny, shriveled girl with
small lumps and wrinkled skin. 

"The nurse said: 'Ma'am, the baby has deformities,' " Mrs.
Stirman, 39, recalled in an interview. Unable to get any
meaningful medical help in this remote fishing village of
about 300 people, she watched as her fourth child suffered
for months and then died in July. 

The infant's death came after years of complaints by local
fishermen about waste dumped in the ocean by the owner of a
nearby gold mine, the Newmont Mining Corporation, the
world's biggest gold producer, based in Denver. It also
kicked up a political brawl pitting Indonesia's feisty
environmental groups against the American mining giant,
which has been trailed by allegations of pollution on four

The fight has aroused intense interest in mining circles
and among environmental groups for the fresh concerns it
raises about how rich multinational companies - especially
those that extract resources like coal, copper and gold as
well as oil and natural gas - conduct themselves in poor

For Newmont, the battle is only the latest round of
troubles as the company, concerned by the more stringent
rules for mining permits in the United States, seeks
greater growth from operations overseas, where
environmental groups and, increasingly, government
officials charge that it employs practices not tolerated at

No definitive cause has been found for the illnesses among
the villagers. Company executives, Newmont said in a
statement, were "convinced that we are not polluting the
waters of Buyat Bay or adversely affecting the health of
the people in that area." 

But on Aug. 31, an Indonesian government panel announced
that Newmont "had illegally disposed" of waste containing
arsenic and mercury in the ocean near the mine site, and
had failed to get the required permits from the Ministry of
Environment since 1996. The environment minister, Nabiel
Makarim, said the company might face criminal charges. 

The findings came a week after a local legal aid group
filed a suit on behalf of three villagers, including the
baby's mother, in a district court in South Jakarta,
alleging that they and the baby had been made sick by the
mine waste. They are seeking $543 million in damages. 

The company denied the charges and said in its statement
that it "operates in full compliance with Indonesian and
U.S. environmental standards." 

Newmont has run into trouble before, even at home. But some
of the gravest allegations of polluting mining practices
have come from its operations in developing nations, from
Indonesia to Peru to Turkey. 

Here, the fight with Newmont has fueled a growing popular
impression that mining and energy companies hold a tight
grip over Indonesia's weak regulatory system. Many blame
the corruption, cronyism and unevolved legal structure
inherited from General Suharto, the dictator whose rule
ended in 1998 and who, for a price, eagerly opened the
doors to foreign investors. 

When Newmont first came looking for gold in Indonesia in
the 1980's, it dealt with the Suharto government. Since
then, a handful of officials knowledgeable about the
environment have said they wanted to stand up to Newmont
and other companies, but lost the battles. 

In Newmont's case, correspondence shows that from 2000 to
2002 the Ministry of Environment challenged Newmont about
the toxicity of the mine waste it was dumping at Buyat Bay.
In a letter to Newmont in March 2002, a senior ministry
official, Isa Karnisa Ardiputra, listed seven points of
concern and asked for "immediate action." 

In an interview at Newmont's Jakarta headquarters on Aug.
27, the president of Newmont in Indonesia, Richard B. Ness,
and other company officials said they were not aware of the

Emil Salim, a minister of the environment during the
Suharto era, who is overseeing the panel that found Newmont
had acted illegally, reflected the anger of many
Indonesians over the dumping of waste that was allowed to
go on for years despite such challenges from parts of the

"We are weak in governance in mining," he said. Using the
mine industry's word to describe the waste, Mr. Salim said
he had told the company: "I am not against you. But please
don't put your tailings in our ocean." 

Some sense a potential turning point in the outrage stirred
by the death of Mrs. Stirman's baby. 

The mother was told by a doctor, Sandra Rotty, an
Indonesian who works at the Newmont financed health center
at nearby Ratatok, that the child had a common skin
disease. After examining the baby in April, Dr. Rotty wrote
to a local environmental group, Kelola, that the baby's
skin "disorder" was "caused by malnutrition." 

"Now, the baby's condition is already better," she added.

When the child showed no improvement, however, the group
asked a team of public health doctors to visit Buyat Bay. 

About 120 villagers were waiting to be examined in June in
the ad hoc clinic set up in three local homes. Thirty of
the villagers had tumor-like growths, said one of the
doctors, Jane Pangemanan. 

"I was shocked by what I saw," she said in an interview. Of
the 60 people she examined, about 80 percent showed
symptoms of poisoning by mercury and arsenic, she said. 

On a recent visit to the community, and judging from the
villagers who came to the Jakarta courthouse for the
opening of the case on Aug. 27, the health problems were
evident at almost every turn. 

One of the babies had a cyst the size of a small pea on the
end of her tongue. A mother had two lumps on her breasts
the size of golf balls. One woman had a large lump down her
left side that made her look half pregnant. 

A lawyer for Newmont, Palmer Situmorang, said the lumps and
skin diseases that the villagers complained about were the
result of "poor sanitation and poor nutrition." 

"They are liars because their orientation is to just get
money," he said. 

But an environmental scientist, Evan Edinger, who is an
assistant professor at the University of Newfoundland in
Canada and who is working with the Indonesian environmental
group Friends of the Earth, said he believed that arsenic
in the mine waste was the main cause of the illnesses. 

In laboratory tests in Canada, he found that about 30
percent of the arsenic in the sediment from Buyat Bay was
soluble in weak acid environments, like the digestive
tracts of worms, he said in an interview. 

"Our hypothesis is that if you have sediment-feeding
organisms and bottom-dwelling fish eat them, then that
could be the pathway to contamination from arsenic," Mr.
Edinger said. 

Newmont's own laboratory results also show high levels of
arsenic in the sediment. But the company contends that the
arsenic remains inert and nonsoluble in the ocean. 

In a paper released to the news media, Newmont said that
"collectively, there is no scientific evidence to suggest
that mining activity at Minahasa has resulted in arsenic
contamination of Buyat Bay biological ecosystem." 

The national police chief in Indonesia, Gen. Da'i Bachtiar,
released the police's own laboratory results in August that
showed mercury contamination of the sea. The company
disputed the results, saying the police did not measure
dissolved mercury. 

But General Da'i's chief investigator in the case,
Sulistiandriatmoko, retorted: "We are not that stupid. We
measured the dissolved mercury, not the total mercury. I
think they are just trying to distort the case." 

The Newmont mine above Buyat Bay is on the northern tip of
Sulawesi in Minahasa, a region where fishermen in handmade
wooden boats have been trawling for hundreds of years.
Where small vanilla, clove and coconut plantations once
prospered, Newmont carved five pits into the brown earth. 

With its relatively low costs and high-grade gold that was
easy to get at, it was a "little model of a mine," said Ali
Sahami, a geologist who works as one of Newmont's
environmental advisers. At the height of production from
1998 to 2000, the mine was producing nearly 25 percent of
the company's international output. 

Newmont finished mining in 2001 and has since been
processing mined ore, work it was scheduled to complete on
Aug. 31. 

Villagers say the fish off their beach were once so
plentiful they would start a fire for grilling before
setting off to catch the evening meal. But almost
immediately after mining operations started, the fish
stocks dropped dramatically. 

Rasit Rahman, a squat man with a thick tangle of black
hair, who had a lump removed from the back of his neck
recently, was one of the plaintiffs who appeared in court
on Aug. 27. 

"My catch dwindled so fast after the mine came, I could no
longer afford to send my youngest son to school," he said.
Before the mine company came to the area in 1996, he said,
he could earn $30 a day, a substantial amount in a village
without electricity and running water. "We had to look for
another place to catch fish," he said. "It was so much
harder, and we were getting so little." 

At issue is Newmont's use of a waste disposal method,
effectively banned in the United States under the Clean
Water Act, that is called submarine tailing disposal. It
involves piping treated mine waste into the ocean. 

Newmont uses the method not only at the mine near Buyat
Bay, but also at its far bigger copper and gold mine on the
island of Sumbawa. 

The legal aid group, Agency for Health Law, which has
brought the suit on behalf of the villagers, charges that
the system polluted the warm equatorial waters around the
village, where people depend almost exclusively on fish for
food as well as for their livelihoods. 

In the interview at the company's headquarters, Mr. Ness,
the Newmont president in Indonesia, defended the use of the
waste system. He also made that case before an Indonesian
parliamentary committee in August. 

He said it was more "responsible" to put the waste in the
sea than store it on land that could be subject to
earthquakes. Furthermore, he said, "Tailings are nothing
more than ground-up rock." 

Others disagree. Environmental groups vociferously oppose
the sea disposal of waste. Some mining companies, like the
Australian giant BHP Billiton, say they would not use such
a method in current projects, even though it is cheaper
than land-based waste storage. 

Robert E. Moran, a hydrogeologist who advises mining
companies and environmental groups, said in a telephone
interview from Colorado that "clearly tailings are much
more complex chemically than crushed rock - or else they
would not require detoxification treatment prior to

The waste from the mine being released into the sea
amounted to a potentially "toxic soup," he said. 

Mr. Moran, who reviewed partial analyses from the plant
made available by Newmont, said he was confident that the
waste consisted of metal-like elements like arsenic and
antimony and metals like mercury, cadmium, lead, copper and

Those substances in the rock where the gold is found, he
said, are treated with sodium cyanide, and the subsequent
mixture is treated again with other chemicals in an attempt
to reduce the concentration of cyanides. 

In all likelihood, Mr. Moran said, some amount of cyanide
compounds and other organic chemicals remained in the waste
that was released into the ocean less than a half mile off
shore at a relatively shallow depth of about 82 meters. 

In tropical waters like those around Buyat Bay, the toxic
compounds often became "more mobile and more accessible to
the food chain than in temperate waters," Mr. Moran said. 

Washington's political risk insurance agency, the Overseas
Private Investment Corporation, does not like the submarine
tailing disposal system, either. In the late 1990's, the
agency refused to give insurance to a mine operated by Rio
Tinto in Papua New Guinea on the grounds that the mine's
submarine tailing system would violate United States
domestic regulations. 

Newmont will essentially leave the site near Buyat Bay
early next year, although a small skeleton staff will be on
hand for three years to complete reclamation and oversee
some community development projects, Newmont officials

To its critics, Newmont says its mine closure plan will
leave a community better off than when the company arrived.
The plan shows photographs of a new school and groups of
happy children splashing in clean water. 

But the villagers at the beach say they are uninterested.
They are no longer able to sell their fish in the local
markets. In addition to the illnesses that many now suffer,
their livelihoods are shattered, said Anwar Stirman, the
brother of Mrs. Stirman. 

"We can no longer make money from the fish," Mr. Stirman
said. "We're talking to the provincial officials about our
future. The whole village is waiting to be moved to another

In any event, Newmont contends that the sea at Buyat Bay is
in fine shape. The company ran color advertisements saying
so in 10 Indonesian newspapers at the end of August. 

"We find the water is in excellent condition," said Robert
Humberson, general manager for external relations. "I dive
there myself. It's fabulous." 



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