Sat, 13 May 2000

Freeport told to close Wanagong dumping site

JAKARTA (JP): The government will order copper and gold mining company PT Freeport Indonesia to temporarily stop using Lake Wanagong as a dumping site, following an incident that led to the disappearance of four workers.

Director general of general mining at the Ministry of Mines and Energy Surna Tjahja Djajadiningrat said on Friday the government had decided to temporarily bar Freeport from dumping the top soil of its mine -- which is also called overburden in the industry -- into the lake until it improved safety measures at the site.

Surna said he would sign the letter of order later on Friday and send it to Freeport.

"You could say that we've suspended Freeport's utilization of Lake Wanagong as its dumping ground," Surna said in a media briefing.

The order, he said, followed a recommendation by the joint team of the ministry and the Environmental Management Agency (Bapedal), members of which have just returned from investigating the cause of the landslide.

Last week, a large pile of overburden broke off and collapsed into Lake Wanagong, causing a massive wave that swept away four workers of Freeport's contractors, PT Petrosea and PT Graha Buana Jaya working near the lake. The four workers are still missing.

Surna said if Freeport was unable to apply safety measures at Lake Wanagong, it would have to find another area for its overburden.

Surna declined to provide details on the impact of the suspension order on Freeport's operation.

"As far as I know, without a dumping site, Freeport will not be able to operate for longer than two months," he said.

State Minister of Environment Sonny Keraf earlier said the government might suspend Freeport's operation if negligence was proved to be behind the accident.

However, Surna said, thus far the team, who returned from Freeport on Thursday, was unable to determine the exact cause of the incident.

Freeport has blamed the collapse of the overburden pile on heavy rainfall, which reached on average of 40 millimeters last week.

According to Sonny, it was the third time the pile had broken up. In 1998, heavy rain triggered a slide, while last March it was due to an earthquake. In both cases, Freeport reported no deaths or injuries.

Freeport had reportedly installed an early warning system on the top of the overburden pile and down at the lake, but Surna said it remained unclear why the early warning systems failed to function.

Surna said the government and Freeport would continue to investigate this matter.

Freeport spokesman Mindo Pangaribuan said he respected the government's decision, but refused to further elaborate, as the company had yet to formally receive the order.

He said apart from Lake Wanagong, Freeport had a second dumping site, Qartenz, located southeast from the lake.

Mindo said that albeit the government's decision, Freeport could keep operating at its normal production rate of 230,000 metric tons of ore per day.

He admitted, however, that if Freeport was prohibited from using Lake Wanagong for a long period, the company might have to "adjust" its production rate.

Legislator Pramono Anung praised the government's decision, saying it was a step forward in disciplining Freeport.

He blamed the incident on a surge in the company's production, which caused the volume of overburden to significantly increase and added that the landslide indicated that the company was not yet fully prepared to expand its output to 300,000 tons of ore per day.

He said no landslide accidents had occurred at Freeport's mine until 1997, when its output stood at 150,000 tons of ore per day. (bkm)