MAC: Mines and Communities

Acid attack

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

Acid attack

Since 1990, local Kutai have been angered at the increasing congestion of the river Sangatta (inevitable, given the huge influx of workers, equipment and "services" to the area) and mounting turbidity of its waters [Plunder! Partizans, London, 1991]. Since the mine opened, they have reported considerable deterioration in the quality of a source on which they traditionally depended for all personal and household purposes - citing its putrescent smell and the fact that the skin tends to itch after use. Fresh water supplies by KPC, they say, are "completely inadequate" [DTE, letter to Rio Tinto, March 1998], while the state-owned water company only supplies "wealthy homes and businesses in Sangatta" [ibid].

In March 1998, DTE asked "what measures have been taken to prevent contamination of the River Sangatta and its tributaries by metal ions as a result of acid rock drainage from the PT KPC site", pointing out that "... the 1996 Rio Tinto Health, Safety and Environmental Report does not present any information about this..." Neither does the 1997 HSE report – nor presumably will this year's (as of mid-June it had still not been published by Rio Tinto). KPC is not counted as a Rio Tinto Group operation, although BP and Rio Tinto share management responsibility. [Rio Tinto Annual Report and Accounts 1998, London and Melbourne, 1999].

The company's response was delegated to its newly appointed Head of External Affairs, the urbane Andrew Vickerman. He claimed in April 1988 that potable water supplies had been increased from 80,000 litres a day in mid-1997 to 200,000 litres and that the company had agreed with the Indonesian regime to "subsidise the cost of installation of a piped water distribution network to all of Teluk Lingga and Sangatta". Whether or not this was efficiently operating by March 1999, the scarcity of water still required Kutai people in south Sangatta to use the contaminated river for bathing and washing clothes. The committee told me Kutai people have to pay 1,000 rupiahs for 20 litres of clean water.

And here's the problem: not only has the quality of water in the Sangatta allegedly gone down since mining began, but the river is clogged with lime used to neutralise acidity. The Kutai village committee informed me that, effectively, people are no longer able to fish in the Sangatta; when it rains "the fish will die". Clean, potable water, say the villagers, is only made available by the company to worker's houses on the other side of the river.

KPC is fairly open about the amount and degree of acid rock drainage from its vast, sprawling site. But it glosses over the fact that, while 60% of the dumped overburden at Kaltim Prima is allegedly "non acid-forming" (and therefore left exposed by the company to air and water), "only 14 per cent of material [is] highly acid forming" [Vickerman to Marr, ibid] - leaving 26% unaccounted for - which presumably consists of medium or low acid -forming rock unaccounted for.

"Occasionally" says the company "...acid-forming materials are exposed to the atmosphere and rain for limited duration. Where this occurs acid water is collected [using portable water treatment plants] and treated with lime" [Vickerman-Marr ibid]. The cosy picture of small piles of overburden, leapt upon by zealous technicians who siphon off the acidic discharges and neatly dispose of them, is betrayed by the pools of water which rapidly form close to the dumps and seem to be ignored; also by a large lagoon, adjacent to one waste dump, which is allowed to flow regularly into a tributary of the Sangatta river. This stream is used by families who have constructed rickety shacks along its banks and who (I was informed) rely on the lime-glutted water as their only source. Dead trees stood as forlorn, mute, witnesses to the inaccuracy of the company's claim that all in this particular garden was lovely.

(N.B. The considerable potential for contamination due to unauthorised discharges from the coal washing plant and tailings dam near the port terminal could not be examined in this study, for lack of time. The company claims to have installed systems, including settling ponds and recycling of fresh water, which effectively protect the coastal region and the river Sangatta. This author is not aware of recent accusations of widespread damage having been made about this aspect of the plant's operations, but points out that those most likely to have experience of them are the residents of Tanjung Bara, who are primarily well-paid higher echelon employees of the company - and not likely to bite too vociferously the hand that feeds them.)

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