MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Corporate Killings at Freeport's Indonesian Mine?

Published by MAC on 2003-11-01


Corporate Killings at Indonesian Mine? Freeport-Rio Tinto knew that October 9th Pit Wall Collapse was Coming

According to a report published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday November 1 2003, Freeport-Rio Tinto knew that a land slip at its Grasberg mine was inevitable, two days before the disaster on October 9th which has cost the lives of eight workers. [see previous posting]. However the companies effectively did nothing to prevent it since (so they claim) they did not believe the collapse would be as devastating as it proved.

Worse, they moved equipment out of the path of the expected avalanche, but failed to relocate those still working at the pit wall. This revelation takes on an even more horrendous perspective when set alongside, not only recent similar disasters elsewhere in the world, but the fact that four lives were sacrificed in 2000 when Lake Wanagon, site of the Grasberg waste rock dump, suddenly overflowed. Eleven years ago, Rio Tinto had also failed to prevent the release of more than six hundred used chemical containers into the Kelian and Mahakam rivers, just after its Kelian gold mine, in Indonesian East Kalimantn came, on stream. The cause of this mishap was torrential rain - just what Freeport-Rio Tinto now blames for the tragedy of October 9th.

On October 31 2003, the day before the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the corporate culpability of the two Grasberg operators, a coalition headed by Indonesian Friends of the Earth (WALHI) issued a statement demanding a full independent enquiry into the disaster, as well as persistent human rights abuses around the mine


Fatal error left miners at mercy of landslide

Syndey Morning Herald

November 1 2003

Matthew Moore, Herald Correspondent and Karuni Rompies in Jakarta

The operators of the world's richest goldmine had more than two days' warning that a landslide was imminent before it arrived in a torrent of 2.5 million tonnes of rock and mud that killed eight workers.

The managers at the Freeport-McMoRan company had wrongly calculated that the slide would be slow enough and small enough to stop on a 90-metre wide step cut into the wall above the workers they left at the bottom of the pit.

Although heavy rain had fallen for five days, the managers did not realise how much water was trapped in the slope and that the debris would pour over the step onto the workers, according to information provided to the Herald by investigators.

Three weeks later, four bodies remain buried at the bottom of the pit, more than 4000 metres up in the mountains of Papua, just a few kilometres from the only glaciers in South-East Asia. Four bodies have been pulled out and five people are recovering from injuries, including Muhammad Samsuri, who is in a Townsville hospital bed after losing both legs.

Among many of the workers at the Grasberg mine, 16 per cent owned by the [British] Australian mining company Rio Tinto, there is deep concern about whether more should have been done to avoid the disaster.

A week after the October 9 tragedy, the company's chairman and chief executive, Jim Bob Moffett, sought to play down the size of the slide and its impact on production when he addressed financial analysts.

". . . We move 750 [thousand] up to a million tonnes a day and just to be straightforward with you if we had to focus all of our earth-moving equipment on this we could clean it up in three days. "

Although he promised Freeport would do what it could to find out what happened, he did not mention the data it already had that showed a slide was imminent.

Because the south wall where the slide took place was always most at risk, the company had rigged it with more than a dozen extensometers - devices that measure the rate of movement.

Every 20 minutes, any shift was recorded on a computer graph, and the results discussed at meetings twice daily.

Dr Anthony Meyers, Australian liaison with the International Society of Rock Mechanics, said small movements were not something to worry about. The danger came if the rate of movement began to accelerate.

In August and September the rate of movement began to increase from about 4 millimetres a day up to 8mm, and then 10mm before moving back down, says an investigator, Witoro Soelarno, of the Indonesian Department of Energy and Mineral Resources.

The Grasberg mine's operating procedures say that movement of more than 10mm a day means "possible pit slope failure". In early October, the slope continued to pick up speed and by October 5 parts of it were moving at 20mm and 30mm a day, Mr Witoro said.

On October 7, two days before the slide, Freeport moved its stationary mining equipment on the 90-metre step out of the zone where it expected the slide to hit.

But below the step, it was work as normal for the drivers of the 240-tonne trucks and the bulldozers, and mechanics like Muhammad Samsuri. Just before dawn on October 9, he and two friends were working on a pump in the open when he looked up. "I saw the mountain split into two," he said. "Then I ran, I was confused, I was nervous, where should I run to?"

Mr Samsuri and one friend headed for the shelter of a small water tank, while the other friend ran the opposite way. There was no way out for any of them.

Mr Samsuri was knocked unconscious by the rubble which buried him chest-deep, although he woke up when given drugs. "The one next to me was already unconscious. I could only see his head. I think he was already dead. The other one, Budi Kuncoro, I could only hear him screaming for help. According to my wife, I am the only one who is alive from the three of us."

Peter Lilly, chairman of mining engineering at Curtin University, said such large loss of life was very rare in open-cut mines because slides can usually be predicted. Engineers monitored the weak spots and, if they started to move, managers moved workers out of the way.

Freeport did not move its workers out of the path of the slope failure because it did not expect the slide to be so liquid.

The seven piezometers it had in the slope to warn of a build-up of water were not in the right place to alert them of a "pocket" of water high up.

Mr Witoro said Freeport had already mapped the water pockets in the area but was not worried about them filling up because they normally drained themselves.

Given that history, the company could not have predicted what happened without monitoring those pockets.

"So far there has been no experience like this . . . Usually there are many cracks in this. Water comes out. But not this time. Now, the water comes in and stays there."

Mr Witoro does not blame Freeport for putting workers at the pit bottom when it knew a slide was coming because "the systems seemed to work well". But now major changes, including the use of drainage systems, might be needed to keep water out before mining could resume.

Freeport declined to respond to all questions from the Herald about the evidence that a landslide was imminent, or what considerations they gave it. "We have always been strongly committed to safety in all phases of our operations and our safety department has a very good record," it said.


Freeport-Rio Tinto Exposed!

31 October 2003

Jakarta - A coalition of West Papuan and Indonesian groups, including WALHI-Friends of the Earth Indonesia, held a series of events to expose the destruction caused by the US-based Freeport and UK/Australia-based Rio Tinto, two giant companies who are owners of the notorious Grasberg mine in West Papua.

The years of opposition were rekindled when a disastrous landslide occurred at the mine site on Thursday morning, October 9, 2003, claiming eight workers' lives and severely injuring five others.

"This event proves Freeport is not competent to handle the current high level of mining production. The government must immediately enforce a reduction in Freeport's production capacity," said Longgena Ginting, National Director of Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI) in an October 10, 2003, press release.

The following week, WALHI joined the coalition, Solidarity Action to Challenge Freeport-Rio Tinto, to hold a series of events to further expose the two companies. The coalition held a press conference at WALHI's Jakarta office on October 22, 2003 to coincide with the visit of George W Bush to Bali in which he was scheduled to meet with Indonesian President Megawati to discuss among other things, the investigation into the deaths of two Americans killed in a shooting near the Grasberg mine site last year.

The coalition used Bush's investigation call as a platform to demand an in-depth investigation into the crimes and thousands of victims at the Freeport-Rio Tinto mine. Titled "George W Bush demands justice for two American victims - Papuan people demand justice for THOUSANDS of victims of Freeport-Rio Tinto!" the press conference drew a lot of media attention.

The coalition put the spotlight not only on the latest landslide disaster, but also on Freeport-Rio Tinto's unsafe production levels, the tens of millions of dollars it has paid to the notorious Indonesian military, and the history of human rights abuses of the local indigenous peoples.

Also, the coalition demanded that the Government of Indonesia renegotiate the Contract of Work with the two giants.

"The Contract of Work renegotiation has to take place with the following conditions; (1) assign an independently chosen team to complete an environmental audit and a full investigation into human rights abuses, (2) Freeport-Rio Tinto must halt all payments to the military in West Papua and reveal all details regarding past payments, both official and unofficial, and (3) there must be a national dialogue between the Government of Indonesia and the West Papuan community to address human rights abuses," stated Hans Gebze from the West Papua Students Alliance.

These points were further explored in a public discussion held two days later on October 24, 2003 in Gedung Joang '45, Jakarta. Themed "Cutting Open Freeport-Rio Tinto", the discussion was moderated by Nur Hidayati from WALHI-FoE Indonesia with speakers such as Chalid Muhammad from the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), Hans Gebze from the West Papua Students Alliance, Yusuf Lakaseng from Aceh-Papua Solidarity, and Emmy Sahertian from National Solidarity for Papua.

To top it all, on October 28, 2003, hundreds of West Papuan youth from the West Papua Students Alliance brought these conditions right to Freeport's door in Kuningan, Jakarta. Banners and posters colored the action and it gained media interest.

In 1997, the Indonesian government approved a request from Freeport to raise ITS production capacity to 300,000 tons of ore per day. The increase in production capacity was funded in large part by Rio Tinto Ltd, in return for a share of the increased mine profits. Even at the lower production level, Freeport's operations had resulted in huge environmental impacts. Destruction caused by the Freeport mining operation covers a vast area from the 4,000 meter high mountaintop all the way down to the coast and the Arafura Sea to Australia's north.

Freeport Mining Indonesia always claims that various disasters which have occurred in its area of operations are the tragic result of natural events, such as the landslide of waste rocks at Lake Wanagon in 2000, which killed 4 of Freeport's subcontract workers. In fact, Freeport is well aware of the risk of its operation in an area with high rainfall and seismic activity, nevertheless this has not prevented the company from raising production capacity in the scramble for maximum profits.

In year 2000, WALHI-FoE Indonesia filed a lawsuit against Freeport for not giving correct and accurate information about the incident in Lake Wanagon which had caused 4 casualties. The first-tier court found Freeport guilty as charged. The case is now on the National Supreme Court.

Contact: Jl. Tegal Parang Utara 14, Jakarta 12790, Indonesia
( Tel: 021-79193363, Fax: 021-7941673, Email:info@walhi.or.id )

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