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Published by MAC on 2004-11-25

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Government concludes Buyat Bay polluted

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja and Tony Hotland, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

November 25 2004

After long and exhaustive tests carried out by a number of local and international teams, the government concluded on Wednesday that Buyat Bay, North Sulawesi, was indeed polluted and vowed to hold the polluters responsible for the environmental crime.

Speaking after a meeting with Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Alwi Shihab said the bay contained high levels of metals and chemicals, and the government would file a law suit with the appropriate court.

"The recent verification of the government team's test results has confirmed that the bay is contaminated with arsenic, but we will leave it to the courts to determine the level of pollution and who are responsible," Alwi told a press conference.

Also attending the conference were State Minister of Research and Technology Kusmayanto Kadiman and State Minister of the Environment Rachmat Witoelar.

A joint team of government officials, activists and police had concluded earlier through laboratory tests that the bay was indeed polluted with excessive levels of arsenic and mercury.

The people of Buyat have blamed the pollution on PT Newmont Minahasa Raya, which is the only mining firm operating in the area and which has been dumping its tailings into the bay since 1996.

The team's test results were taken to the research and technology office to be verified, and were confirmed to be accurate in indicating that the bay was polluted.

The verified results show similarities to tests carried out independently by the police.

Newmont has persistently refuted the allegation, saying that the bay was not contaminated and that the metal levels were within safety standards.

Rachmat said the government would pursue legal recourse against the mining firm if evidence arose that pointed to the firm's involvement in the pollution.

"I suppose the levels of arsenic and mercury are not that much higher than the standard, but the people there are suffering ailments because of the pollution," he said.

He added that the government would charge those responsible for the crime under Law No. 23/1997 on environmental management.

Violations of the law, especially those that cause death, are subject to a maximum 15-year sentence and a maximum Rp 750 million (US$84,270) fine. The law also allows the confiscation of any profit gained by the guilty party through the violations.

Also on Wednesday, lawmakers from the House of Representatives Commission VIII for environmental, science and technology affairs said the government should take into account the roles of previous administrations that should have monitored Newmont's operations and their environmental impact.

The legislators, who held a hearing with the joint team to review its test results, said the police should question ministers and officials who had a role in granting the company permission to operate and in monitoring the company's management of tailings.

The police have detained six Newmont executives and recently submitted their case files to the North Sulawesi Prosecutor's Office.

Contacted separately, Newmont lawyer Luhut M. Pangaribuan said the firm would respect and act in accordance with the legal procedures taken against them.

"It's a problem of two different opinions, which brings us to the question of the methodology used. We stick to our statement that the metals in the bay's water and fish are within the safety levels and are therefore fit for consumption," Luhut said.

He deplored the refusal of police to listen to facts and statements from experts put forth by Newmont, and said the police were being subjective and fanatic about their own pollution claim.

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