Rehabilitation or procrastination?Published by MAC on 2001-05-01
Rehabilitation or procrastination?
In 1990 an Indonesian parliamentary commission concluded that KPC was the only one of eighteen domestic coal producers to have "concrete plans" for site rehabilitation [Jakarta Post October 9 1990 and Digging Deep, op cit]. This wasn't saying much: although the initial contracted "life" of KPC was set at thirty years and current output is twice that originally envisaged, further exploration will probably uncover massive new resources. The crucial questions are: to what degree are the endemic problems of acid rock drainage likely to get worse in the long term? To what extent has reseeding taken place on stripped sites? Above all, to what extent (if any) is it possible to mitigate the impacts of current operations on land (quantitatively and qualitatively); air quality (mainly through dust emissions) worker's health; and water quality for the people in Sangatta, on both sides of the river?
Compared with other coal mines in East Kalimantan, KPC's environmental programme at least shows effort and some concern. (On one trip along the River Mahakam, to the south of Sangatta, I rested briefly at a village which had grown up around a local coal mine and landing stage for the Mahakam ferry. This was the least prepossessing settlement I came across in Indonesia, the main road thick with dust, the community impoverished and dissolute. Neither I nor my Indonesian companions wanted to stay a moment longer than necessary; it was here that I witnessed the distressing and uncharacteristic baiting, and brief sexual assault, of a young man with learning disability, by a group of other young men - a show apparently put on for our dubious "benefit". But the comparison between KPC and other mines is misleading, since the latter are very much smaller, thus the cumulative damage is considerably less. KPC may not send over-loaded lorries careering dangerously along precarious public highways, or ply barges up the rivers, with the attendant risk of an accident causing sediment overload and contamination. But its operations cover a vast area and, as already pointed out, the Sangatta River is far from protected.
The company claims to rehabilitate some 200 hectares of "disturbed land" each year, with a commitment to "replant areas larger than that disturbed" - by seeding land stripped or degraded before the company arrived [Australian Financial Review, March 29 1993]. It also claims to propagate over 90 species of rainforest trees, compared with "only seven non-local species" and that the planting of ground in the company lease adjoining the Kutai National Park "has resulted in fauna returning to rehabilitation areas"[Vickerman to Marr, op cit]. These claims do not stand up to visual check [see photos]: at best the regeneration programme is clearly only in a precarious infancy, and may have encountered problems (of soil acidity or lack of nutrients in stored topsoil?) which KPC is not divulging to critics.