[Homestead] Mining companies, pollution forever

Tvoivozhd 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 
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 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 
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 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 
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 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 
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 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 
fabulous."


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