Thu, 19 Jun 2003

Newmont endangers people, ecosystem

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A study released by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) on Wednesday contends that tailings from gold mining firm Newmont Minahasa Raya (NMR) contain four times the government- allowed level of cyanide, endangering the health of residents and endangering the environment.

The study alleged that traces of cyanide could be found in marine animals living in Buyat Bay, Buyat River and Ratatotok Bay in Minahasa regency, North Sulawesi, where the NMR tailings were disposed.

"The research shows that NMR tailings have disturbed the marine ecosystem in both Buyat and Ratatotok bay. The disposal of the NMR tailings has been uncontrolled and widespread," said Walhi campaigner Raja Siregar, who conducted the study with Joko Purwanto, a senior lecturer at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture.

The field study took place in June 2001 and January 2002, and Joko analyzed the findings of the study up to early this year.

Raja said high levels of cyanide and other chemicals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic in Buyat Bay had reduced the catch of local fishermen.

"The locals have to sail a kilometer out from the coast ... to catch fish," he said.

Locals also have begun to suffer health problems, mostly brain damage and tremors, he alleged.

Raja said the study proved that NMR had violated its environmental impact assessment, which stipulated that cyanide should not be found in the bodies of marine animals in the area.

The study also claims NMR's tailings pipeline is prone to leakage, stating that four leaks occurred in the last seven years.

Raja accused NMR of being irresponsible and endangering both local residents and the environment.

"NMR must pay compensation for the health, social and environmental damage it has caused to locals. But so far, the locals have not seen it (compensation)," he said.

NMR external relations manager David Sompie denied the findings of the Walhi study.

He said the company carried out a detoxification process on its tailings to eliminate the cyanide used in the gold mining process.

He said previous studies by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the Agency for the Study and Application of Technology and the Environmental Impact Control Agency found no excess cyanide in NMR's tailings.

He said there was no reason to trust the findings of the Walhi study.

"We have more faith in the previous studies. We have been doing very good so far, otherwise our license would have already been revoked by the government," Sompie said.

The company began its mining operation in Ratatotok village, Belang district, Minahasa regency, North Sulawesi, in 1996, with a concession of 527,448 hectares.

The company will close its operation later this year, but it is required to monitor the site for the next three years.

As of 2002, NMR has released over four million tons of tailings into Buyat Bay and the surrounding coast.

Ironically, NMR's sister company, Newmont Nusa Tenggara, has been given a license by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to carry out mining activities in a protected forest in Lombok island, West Nusa Tenggara province.

The deputy assistant for mining, energy, oil and gas at the Office of the State Minister for the Environment, Yanuardi Rasudin, said he would contact NMR to clarify Walhi's claims.

"We will also ask NMR to explain its plans for closing the mine," he said.

If there are any violations of its contract, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources can take action against the company.