Newmont: Pollution in Buyat BayPublished by MAC on 2004-11-16
Pollution in Buyat Bay
Editorial, New York Times
November 16, 2004
Indonesia's natural resources are among the most bounteous in the world. They are also among the most abused. Desperate for foreign investment and plagued by corruption and weak regulation, Indonesian governments over the years have virtually invited multinational corporations - and, for that matter, their own citizens - to clear-cut the country's incomparable rain forests, foul the air and pollute the water. Now more than 80 percent of the country's 19,700-square-mile reef system, the world's largest, is at risk.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general, became Indonesia's first directly elected president last month partly on the promise of a cleaner, more open government, free of entanglements with special interests. He now has an opportunity to begin redeeming that pledge. Before him and his ministers lies a hotly disputed government report that says the sediment in Buyat Bay, the equatorial bay where an American corporation, Newmont Mining, has been depositing mine waste for several years, is polluted with high levels of arsenic and mercury.
The report further asserts that the pollutants have worked their way up the food chain and that fish in the bay are now laced with enough arsenic to make them unfit for consumption. The report, which Jane Perlez of The New York Times described last week, is the most comprehensive of several studies on Buyat Bay and is sure to figure in a $543 million lawsuit that local villagers have filed against the company. The villagers have complained of rashes, lumps, breathing difficulties and dizziness.
In response, Newmont says it received official clearance to flush wastes into the bay under a system known as "submarine tailing disposal." The company also insists that the underlying data does not support the disturbing conclusions that have appeared in the press, and that other studies have shown no contamination of the fish or the water.
There is one way to resolve this. Mr. Yudhoyono must swiftly release the full report. The report was compiled by a dozen or so experts, including Indonesian and American scientists, and it deserves to see the light of day. The president's next obligation, assuming that he finds no unexpected and disabling flaws in the study, is to stick by it and to seek appropriate remedies from the company.
That is easier said than done. Newmont is capable of mounting a stout defense. And like large multinationals elsewhere, its tentacles reach deep into Indonesia, which, like most third-world societies, is eager for foreign capital. As Rachmat Witoelar, the environment minister, noted plaintively, "I don't want to be part of throwing investors out of Indonesia." But he also added, and rightly so, that "you have to give protection to the victims."