[Homestead] Mining companies, pollution forever
tvoivozd at infionline.net
Sat Sep 11 00:32:43 EDT 2004
Seven thousand miles of West Virginia waterways irrevocably poisoned,
containment dams bursting, arsenic forever in western states
groundwater, many times higher than EPA limits---and the same wherever
they go in foreign countries.
The New York Times
September 8, 2004
Spurred by Illness, Indonesians Lash Out at U.S. Mining Giant
*By JANE PERLEZ and EVELYN RUSLI*
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 continents.
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 nations.
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 home.
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
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
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 letter.
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 government.
"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
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
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
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
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 disposal."
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 zinc.
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
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 said.
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
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 location."
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
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