MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Former minister chides Newmont over Buyat case

Published by MAC on 2004-08-26

Former minister chides Newmont over Buyat case

August 26, 2004

Abdul Khalik, The Jakarta Post/Jakarta

Former state minister for the environment Sonny Keraf said on Wednesday that PT Newmont Minahasa Raya, the only mining company operating in Buyat Bay, North Sulawesi, had not met ecological risk assessment (ERA) requirements during his tenure.

Speaking after he was questioned by the National Police as a witness in the Buyat Bay contamination case, Sonny said he had sent a letter in 2001 requesting Newmont to abide by the standards set for heavy metal content in tailings.

The letter was sent to the U.S.-based company following several public reports that the bay was contaminated, Sonny added.

According to the former minister, at least 0.008 milligram/liter (mg/L) of mercury was found in every 5,000 cubic liters of tailings disposed by Newmont daily, as well as 0.5 mg/L of arsenic and 0.5 mg/liter of cyanide.

Sonny said he had also asked the company to conduct a study on its operations impact on the surrounding environment after many local residents complained about their deteriorating health and reported that various species of fish in the bay had died.

"I received the results (of Newmont's research) subsequently. However, I told police investigators (during the questioning) that I couldn't accept the results for two reasons -- the samples taken didn't cover a broad enough area, and the research was not conducted in both the dry and rainy seasons," he said.

Sonny then asked Newmont to conduct a joint study to verify the impacts of its mining operations at the bay. However, the research never took place, as the company continued to postpone it until he left his post in July 2001, when Megawati reshuffled the Cabinet after succeeding impeached president Abdurrahman Wahid.

The National Police have confirmed that Buyat Bay was contaminated, but are still investigating the source of the pollution, as they found neighboring Totok Bay was also contaminated. Totok Bay is separated from Buyat by a two-kilometer cape.

National Police chief of detectives Comr. Gen. Suyitno Landung Sudjono said on Wednesday that the mercury content at a depth of 40 meters in Buyat Bay was 0.0055 mg/L, while the mercury level at Totok Bay measured 0.007 mg/L.

Ministerial Decree No. 51/2004 on marine pollution standard stipulates that the levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and copper in seawater shall not exceed 0.001 mg/L, 0.008 mg/L, 0.001 mg/L and 0.001 mg/L, respectively.

"PT Newmont claimed that it disposed its tailings at a depth of 82 meters, but we found that water 40 meters from the sea surface was contaminated," said Suyitno.

He said police also found mercury in fish from Buyat Bay, with tissues from red grouper, tiger grouper and Napoleon fish showing mercury levels of 20.8 parts per billion (ppb), 15.7 ppb and 27.5 ppb, respectively.

"However, we cannot use levels of mercury in fish (as evidence), because we have no standard for this," Suyitno said.

Meanwhile, Newmont said the results of an environmental study by Rizald Max Rompas of Sam Ratulangi University showed that the mercury level in fish tissue was not high.

Instead, the company added, it was actually very low -- over 500 times below the World Health Organization's advisory limit for mercury in fish tissue. WHO sets a standard of 500 ppb for non-predatory fish and 1,000 ppb for predatory fish.

Kasan Mulyono, PT Newmont public relations manager, said in a press statement that a study by the company showed that fish from Buyat Bay was safe to eat, because they found mercury levels of only 190 ppb.

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