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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Indonesian Says Waste From Mine Tainted Fish

The New York Times--MANADO, Indonesia, A star government witness in a criminal trial against the American mining giant Newmont told a court on Friday that waste from the company's mine near here was deposited in the sea at too shallow a depth, causing the contamination of fish.

The witness, Masnellyarti Hilman, a deputy environment minister, said elevated levels of arsenic in the fish and the "reduced biodiversity" in the bay near the gold mine demonstrated pollution.

The company vigorously denies the Indonesian government's accusations of pollution and contends that the waste from the mine, near Buyat Bay on the island of Sulawesi, was safely disposed of through a pipe that ran about a half-mile from the shore into the equatorial waters. As soon as Ms. Hilman mentioned pollution, the lead lawyer for the company, Palmer Situmorang, protested to the judge, who ruled that the word should not be used until there was a verdict.

The president of Newmont in Indonesia, Richard B. Ness, who has been charged along with the company, said he rejected Ms. Hilman's argument on the impact of the mine waste. "That has to be left to outside witnesses," Mr. Ness said.

The trial, a rare case of a major American corporation facing criminal charges in a developing country, pits one of Indonesia's valued foreign investors against the nation's little-tested environmental laws. The government took action in 2004 after villagers near the mine complained of tumors, skin rashes and dizziness, for which they blamed the company.

Newmont, a Denver-based corporation and the world's biggest gold producer, has said the illnesses are common to poor coastal communities, and denies responsibility. Most of the villagers, citing fears for their health, moved to another area in Sulawesi last June.

The deputy minister did not make any connection between the contaminated fish and the people's health. She said only that the villagers ate the fish. Experts have said it would be virtually impossible to prove that the mine caused the illnesses.

The chief environmental issue in the trial involves the disposal of the waste, known as tailings, by a method called submarine tailing disposal, which is essentially banned in the United States. Ms. Hilman testified that Newmont's 1993 operational license for the mine called for the company to place the waste below the thermocline, a layer below which water is colder and has less oxygen.

In 1999, she said, a study by the Environment Ministry and the University of Sam Ratulangi here in Manado found that the thermocline was at a depth of 110 meters, or 120 yards. But the company, she said, released the waste from the pipe at a depth of 82 meters, or 90 yards, where the waters were still warm. At that depth the heavy metals in the tailings — arsenic, for one — were able to enter the food chain, she said.

Newmont has consistently argued that the arsenic remained inert and insoluble in the ocean.

Another issue in the trial is the government's accusation that the company did not have the proper permit to dispose of its waste.

Ms. Hilman, who has a degree from a prominent mining school in the United States, the Colorado School of Mines, and is known among the foreign mining companies in Indonesia for being a stickler on pollution, argued that the company had failed to obtain the right permits for toxic waste.

"You can dump waste if you follow the standards and have the permit," Ms. Hilman said.

The company was granted a temporary six-month permit in July 2000 by the environment minister at the time, Sonny Keraf, who told Newmont in a letter that a permanent permit would depend on the company's completing an environmental risk assessment, Ms. Hilman said.

She told the court that Newmont had completed the risk assessment but that it had been rejected by the Environment Ministry because the methodology was faulty.

The New York Times

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