MAC: Mines and Communities

First prosecution witnesses testify in pollution trial of U.S. mining firm

Published by MAC on 2005-10-07

First prosecution witnesses testify in pollution trial of U.S. mining firm

07 October 2005

Miedy Pakasi, AP

MANADO, Indonesia - A fisherman testified Friday that U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp. dumped pollutants into an Indonesian bay that caused lumps on his neck and dizziness, but the defence argued that the witness was faking the illness.

Two other witnesses told the court that locals began suffering "strange diseases" after the arrival of Newmont, but that no formal link to the water pollution had been established.

The trial that opened nearly two months ago is being closely watched by business leaders, who say a guilty verdict could set back Indonesia's improving foreign investment climate, and environmentalists eager to see if the government will crack down on a multinational company.

The Denver-based company's Indonesian subsidiary and its American director Richard Ness have been charged with dumping mercury and arsenic-laced pollutants into the Buyat Bay on Sulawesi island, allegedly causing villagers to develop skin diseases and other illnesses.

Ness faces up to 10 years in prison and the company a $68,000 US fine if convicted.

"I am sure and confident that Buyat Bay is not polluted," he told reporters after the day-long hearing, which was later adjourned until next Friday. "There is still a long way to go."

Rasit Rahman, a 38-year-old fisherman who lives near the mine, was the prosecution's first witness.

"I got lumps on my neck and suffered from dizziness," he told the court, also claiming that fish stocks had been depleted in the bay since Newmont began operating there in 1996.

The company stopped mining two years ago after extracting all the gold it could. But it continued processing ore until Aug. 31, 2004, when the mine was permanently shut.

Under cross examination, the fisherman said he did not go to a local doctor for treatment, but waited until several of the villagers went to the capital, Jakarta, to get a check up in a trip widely covered by the media.

Several such trips were paid for by environmental groups seeking to bring charges against Newmont.

Rahman said he paid for the trip himself, bringing jeers from Newmont supporters in the courtroom.

Newmont's chief lawyer, Luhut Pangarribean, claimed Rahman had signed a statement stating he was never sick, and the attorney showed the court a photograph of Rahman signing the document.

The statement was taken by a local legal aid institute in the area, but Pangarribean gave no more details.

"The witness statements have no link to the charges against Newmont," he said.

Two other witnesses - Jufria, a 45-year-old mother, and Jane Pangemanan, a doctor - said local people suffered from several diseases after Newmont began mining in the area, but that no link with water pollution was established.

Pangemanan told the court that laboratory tests on four villagers who travelled to Jakarta showed their blood contained traces of heavy metals like arsenic and mercury.

"But there were no conclusions from the tests," added Pangemanan, a lecturer at a local university, who admitted signing a statement on Feb. 3 withdrawing her allegations against Newmont.

The company has argued that a police investigation was flawed and that there was no evidence of pollution or that villagers became ill.

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