MAC: Mines and Communities

Selection of articles on the alledged poisonings at Buyat Bay in Indonesia

Published by MAC on 2004-07-30

Buyat Bay tests show high mercury levels Jakarta Post

July 30, 2004

Abdul Khalik and Fitri Wulandari, Jakarta Post

Jakarta - Water consumed by residents living near Buyat Bay in North Sulawesi, where U.S.-based PT Newmont Minahasa Raya has a mine, contained higher mercury levels than normal, a laboratory test confirmed on Thursday.

However, the test by the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Indonesia (MIPA UI) revealed that the mercury content of the water around the bay was far from the sort of levels that could cause Minamata disease, which some locals, aided by NGOs, claimed they were suffering from.

The findings were based on laboratory tests on the blood of four villagers who consumed fish and drinking water from around the bay -- Sri Fika M, Jukria, Masnah and Rasyid Rahmat.

They were among the residents of South Minahasa regency who reported Newmont to the National Police last week for allegedly polluting the bay. The residents claimed they were suffering from Minamata disease.

The tests revealed that the mercury levels in the blood of Sri Fika, Jukria, Masnah and Rasyid Rahmat were 9.51 microns per liter (u/L), 22.50 u/L, 14.90 u/L and 23.90 u/L respectively.

"The test results show that mercury levels in the blood of each of the residents is above the normal level of 8 u/L, while the blood mercury level required for the appearance of Minamata disease is between 200 and 500 u/L," said Dr Budiawan, the head of the MIPA UI's Center for Environmental Safety and Risk Assessment, in a press statement.

As the tests had nothing to say about the sources of mercury in Buyat Bay, Budiawan called for a thorough analysis to determine where the metal came from.

Further analyses were also needed to assess the possibility of other dangerous chemicals, including arsenic, cyanide and manganese, being present in fish and drinking water around the bay.

Earlier this week, State Minister for the Environment Nabiel Makarim declared that mercury levels in Buyat Bay were safe.

The four people who claimed to be suffering from Minamata disease only had skin ailments, he said.

On Wednesday, a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) submitted a number of scientific reports stating that dangerous concentrations of at least four heavy metals had been present in the bay since 1996.

According to the reports, the mercury level in bay sediment near the PT Newmont tailings pipe outlet in 2004 stood at an upper level of 3.509 -- above the World Health Organization limit.

PT Newmont has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, claiming it has been operating in Indonesian in compliance with the prevailing legislation.

Kadar Wiryanto, a senior environmental manager at Newmont Pacific Nusantara, said he could not comment on the MIPA UI tests.

"We will look into it. Our company will take every allegation seriously," he said after a seminar on the alleged mercury contamination in Buyat Bay on Thursday.

In another development, Imam Hendargo A. Ismoyo, from Nabiel's office, said that the tests conducted by MIPA UI had not measured the levels of methyl mercury in the residents' blood. High levels of methyl mercury were chiefly responsible for Minamata disease.

"To test for methyl mercury, blood samples must be tested either in the United States or Japan," said Imam, who led a government team investigating the case.

He said the government was setting up a joint team to conduct further investigations, consisting of officials from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the Office of the State Minister for the Environment, and the Technology Assessment and Application Agency (BPPT).

The team would also include experts from the University of Indonesia, Padjajaran University and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), as well as former environment minister Emil Salim and former health minister Farid Anfasa Moeloek.

Meanwhile, Wan Alkadri, the environmental health director at the health ministry, said his office had asked the Minamata Institute in Japan to help investigate the case.

"We would like to know if it possible for the institute to send some experts here. We also would like to send blood samples to them for (methyl mercury) tests," he said.

Buyat Bay fishermen count losses from pollution

Jongker Rumteh and A. Junaidi, The Jakarta Post

July 24 2004

Manado/Jakarta - Fishermen living near Buyat Bay and Ratatotok Bay in North Sulawesi said on Saturday they had suffered major losses following reports of an outbreak of Minamata disease caused by pollution in the area.

"Because of the reports we have been unable to sell our fish. People from Tondano, Langowan and Kawangkoan used to buy our fish," said one of the fishermen, Dahlan Ibrahim, in Belang village, South Minahasa regency.

Belang, located 90 kilometers south of Manado, is the village where the fishermen in the area sell their catch.

Fishermen Hendrik Pontoh and Salamun of Buyat Pantai village said they had been unable to sell any of their catch.

"People are afraid of eat our fish because of reports that they are contaminated by mercury. We don't know from where we will be able to get money," Pontoh said.

He said the fishermen would demand compensation from those parties that had spread the reports if they were found to be untrue. But they will go to mining company PT Newmont Minahasa Raya for compensation if reports of the contamination are true.

A group of local residents reported the company to the National Police in Jakarta, accusing it of polluting the area with its tailings, causing residents to suffer a variety of illnesses.

Police are investigating the complaint and have asked for medical checkups of residents.

Many North Sulawesi residents, particularly in Manado, Tondano, Langowan and Kawangkoan, said they were afraid to eat fish because of the allegations of pollution.

A housewife, Anne, said she asked where the fish were caught before making a purchase for fear of Minamata.

"I will certainly not buy fish from Buyat or Ratatotok. It is OK if the fish come from Bitung or Likupang in North Minahasa regency," Anne said at a market in Manado.

Another housewife, Jean Tilaar, said she and her family were only eating chicken, beef and freshwater fish now because of reports of pollution in Buyat Bay.

"We decided to stop eating ocean fish because of the reports. We don't want to get Minamata," she said at Kawangkoan market.

PT Newmont's external relations manager, David Sompie, said the North Sulawesi Police were investigating the pollution allegations.

In Jakarta, the executive director of the Indonesian Environmental Forum, Longgena Ginting, clarified that his organization never said that 30 people had died because of pollution in Buyat Bay.

"But at least two infants did die and many people have suffered skin diseases. We have documents about the pollution in Buyat Bay," Longgena told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

He said he was prepared to be questioned by the police over the reports of pollution in Buyat Bay.

PT Newmont reported several non-governmental organizations and individuals to the National Police on Friday for allegedly spreading misleading information that could damage the company's reputation.

Health minister Achmad Sujudi said preliminary examinations of four residents of Minahasa who were thought to have fallen ill because of pollution in Buyat Bay had not found any indications of Minamata disease.

But Sujudi said the ministry had found 30 residents of Ratatotok village suffering from skin problems similar to those suffered by the four people undergoing medical examinations.

Minamata victims report Newmont, minister to police

Abdul Khalik and Jongker Rumteh, Jakarta Post

21st July 2004

Jakarta/Manado - Villagers of Minahasa regency, North Sulawesi, reported U.S.-based PT Newmont Minahasa Raya and the minister of health to the National Police on Tuesday for the spread of suspected Minamata disease, which has allegedly killed 30 people since 1996.

Ratatotok villagers, accompanied by local doctor Jane Pangemanan, said Newmont had dumped industrial waste containing hazardous chemicals, including arsenic and mercury, into Buyat Bay for the last eight years.

"We have reported Newmont because they have dumped their waste to the bay, which caused almost all local villagers to suffer a strange disease with symptoms similar to Minamata disease," Jane said.

At least 30 people, including an infant, died from the disease, contracted from water and fish taken from the contaminated bay, according to Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) in North Sulawesi.

Jane confirmed the report, saying that out of the 74 families in Ratatotok, 80 percent had been infected with Minamata disease, and others had suffered migraines, muscular aches and cancer.

"Many of them have lost their infants, while others have had babies affected in uterus," Jane told journalists after filing the police report.

She said laboratory tests she had conducted showed most villagers suffering the various ailments had high levels of heavy metal in the bloodstream.

Four Minahasa villagers -- Masna Stirman, Rasid Rahmad, Jufria Ratubane and Sintia Mandeon -- said they became ill after using water from the contaminated bay, where they had swum and fished for years.

They said each of them contracted different illnesses caused by the pollution.

"My one-year-old baby, Kris, has a skin irritation on both shoulders. It is getting worse every day. The disease has simply destroyed his arms," said Jufria, showing Kris' red, blotchy shoulders.

Rasid said he had developed a melanoma on his neck, while Masna said she lost her daughter Andini at the age of five months.

"Every day, I suffer unbearable migraines, while the melanoma is getting bigger by the day," Rasid said.

Walhi North Sulawesi chairman Berti Pesik said the forum had undertaken research from 2001 to 2003 around Buyat Bay, where Newmont is located.

"Our research showed that the water here contains arsenic and mercury, which can cause death. We submitted the results to the local administration and Newmont, but they ignored it," he told The Jakarta Post.

Minamata disease, which was discovered in May 1956 and named after its place of discovery on a Japanese island, is one of the first and most serious diseases found to have been caused by environmental contamination from industrial waste.

Methylmercury (MeHg) contained in the waste contaminated marine life in the surrounding waters and poisoning those who ingested the affected fish and shellfish.

Newmont dismissed the accusations on Tuesday, saying the company had operated in compliance with the highest environmental standards.

"It is not true that our operations at Buyat Bay caused health problems among the local community. PT Newmont operates in full compliance with Indonesian and U.S. environmental standards, and is committed to environmental stewardship and community development," said Newmont president director Richard Ness in a press statement.

More than 100 Buyat citizens suffer from Minamata disease


20 July 2004

A baby dies

Manado, Kompas - It is estimated that more than 100 citizens from Buyat, Ratatotok, South Minahasa District, North Sulawesi Province, suffer from the Minamata Disease, which is suspected to be caused by the heavy metal contamination of arsenic and mercury of Buyat Bay.

Buyat Bay, located approximately 110 kilometers northwest of the city of Manado, is home to the Buyat Bay people and is also the site of the submarine tailings disposal operations of PT Newmont Minahasa Raya (NMR).

On Monday (19/7) in Manado, the director of the North Sulawesi NGO Kelola Rignolda Djamaludin and staff member Lita Mamonto stated that the Minamata Disease is present in Buyat Bay based on research done by a group of doctors at the Sam Ratulangi University in June.

According to Dr. Jein Pangemanan, symptoms of this disease begin with a rash and tremors followed by tumours. The tumours appear on various parts of the bodies of the victims including hands, feet, neck, legs, head and breasts. On average, the victims suffer these symptoms.

The heavy metal contamination is suspected to have caused the death of Andini Lenzun, a five month old baby, in early July, after she experienced a rash, tremors and tumours on her body.

Rignolda stated that the death of Andini is related to the heavy metal contamination since the symptoms the baby suffered before her death were similar to those suffered by the victims of the Minamata Disease. Andini's body was covered with a rash before her death.

Medical check-up

Before dying, Andini went through a check-up by Dr. Sandra Rotty, doctor at the Ratatotok Community Health Center. Dr. Rotty stated that there were skin abnormalities on the victim caused by malnutrition and the conditions were expected to improve after two weeks. "However, Andini died two weeks later," stated Rignolda.

PT NMR's External Manager David Sompie who confirmed the death of Andini, denied that the death was caused by the tailings contamination in Buyat Bay. "When Andini died, there was no medical results that significantly stated that the victim died because of heavy metal contamination," stated David Sompie.

The death of Andini has become the centre of discussion of a number of environmental NGOs in North Sulawesi. They have submitted complaints to the Environment Ministry in Jakarta. Police Chief for North Sulawesi John Lallo stated that the death of Andini is still be investigated by the police. "We are in the middle of an investigation on that case," he stated.

PT NMR claims

According to Rignolda, the death of Andini is being used by various parties to sue the polluter in this case, PT NMR. It is hoped that the government will take a strong stand, without hesitating, regarding this company from the US.

PT NMR has closed its mining area after acknowledging that gold reserves in Ratatotok were diminishing. In 2003, PT NMR submitted a four year mine closure plan request.

Rignolda then added that the contamination in Buyat Bay has been evident for the past three years as PT NMR continues to dump its wastes in Buyat Bay. According to Rignolda, the mercury has accumulated in the aquatic environment (biota and sediment) in various levels. The contamination has spread to radius of 1-2 kilometers in the Buyat waters.

From the research done by environmental experts both in and outside the country, it was found that 95 % of the blood samples taken from Buyat citizens contained arsenic above tolerable health limits while 65 % of blood samples contained mercury above tolerable health limits. (zal)

Trans. Tracy Glynn from original: Kompas Selasa, 20 Juli 2004 , Lebih dari 100 Warga Buyat Menderita Penyakit Minamata

Opinion - Defense against the Dark Arts

Ong Hock Chuan, Jakarta, The Jakarta Post

July 28, 2004

Just suppose, for a moment, that you are the management of Newmont. And suppose that you have operated your mine in Minahasa in accordance with the strictest of environmental standards.

Then, out of the blue, an environmental group and some villagers file a police report and call in the media to accuse you of dumping highly toxic mercury into Buyat Bay, not only ruining the livelihoods of the fishermen and their families but causing a stranger disease. They ratchet up the emotional stakes by calling it Minamata disease, after the infamous mercury poisoning scandal of the 1950s in Japan.

Being media savvy activists they have leveled their accusations in the media, replete with graphic "results" of your irresponsible actions. As a result the media is now hounding you.

What would you do?

The knee-jerk reaction for most managers would be to hunker down and try to work things out with the authorities and all parties concerned away from the glare of publicity. This course of action would, however, invite an escalation of the crisis because you would have failed to grasp a basic fact of managing a crisis-like situation: Perception is as important, if not more so, than reality.

Manage the perception well and mitigating the crisis is easier. Manage it badly and you have a bigger crisis to handle than what you began with. At stake is the reputation of your company. If it takes a beating it will never be fully restored even years after the crisis. Freeport is a case in point.

To manage perception during a crisis like that of Newmont's a company needs to demonstrate several attributes if it hopes to emerge from this crisis with its reputation intact: A willingness to accept responsibility, empathy and openness.

A willingness to accept responsibility does not mean the company should admit to and apologize for anything and everything. Rather, it means that the company should communicate and act in such a way that demonstrates that it is not in denial, nor is it defensive.

To demonstrate that it is not in denial the company should convey the message that it is cooperating fully with the authorities to help uncover the truth behind the allegations. To avoid sounding defensive the company should never point the finger at other parties, especially if it cannot prove its allegations conclusively. Hence Newmont's claim that individual miners were responsible for the toxic waste only made things worse when it could not be proven.

The company has also to demonstrate openness. Like it or not, the world is skeptical toward corporations. It is not fair but it is a fact of life. Corporations have to try that much harder to diffuse this skepticism in moments of crises, when they become the center of attention.

It is also a good idea to rely on independent credible third-party individuals or institutions to provide evidence or information that supports the company's case to diffuse the skepticism of the media and public.

It is by demonstrating such attributes that companies can hope to manage perceptions and defend themselves against accusations assuming, of course, that they aren't guilty of the alleged wrongdoing.

If they are guilty, then the best option is to fess up, apologize and announce measures taken to ensure such incidents do not happen again.

Whatever the scenario, however, companies must realize that if they do not manage perceptions well they can easily lose control of the situation as the media and public turns against them. Managing perceptions therefore is a mandatory skill for companies to acquire.

This is especially so because companies are extremely vulnerable to a crisis in Indonesia. At anytime a disgruntled employee, institution or NGO can precipitate a crisis by leveling an accusation, whether justified or unfounded, against a company. The onus then is on the company to exonerate itself.

For proof of how vulnerable corporations are, you need only to read today's newspapers. The Bekasi environmental management agency is accusing two hospitals and 12 companies operating along the Kalimalang River of dumping toxic substances into the river. Some of the companies have denied the charges but the rest have kept silent.

If the media increases its interest in the story, or if other environmental groups take up the allegations of the Bekasi environmental management agency the issue may escalate to crisis levels for the companies involved.

In such situations truth is elusive, even to the journalists whose job it is to cover these issues closely. There will be claims and counter claims but the public will believe the party that is most adept at managing perceptions.

Environmental groups and NGOs have demonstrated time and again that they are media savvy. They call press conferences, stage demonstrations, parade witnesses and victims in photo opportunity sessions and stage iconic moments (remember the David-and-Goliath image of Shell using a water cannon to get rid of Greenpeace activists atop Brent Spar?).

The question is whether the corporate sector in Indonesia is any match for these groups?

The writer is Partner of PT Maverick Solusi Komunikasi, a PR consultancy specializing in crisis/issues management as well as brand communications.

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