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Asia Dive News : U.S. mining giant continues waste dumping in Indonesia

BATU HIJAU MINE, Indonesia - An environmental pointman for U.S. mining giant Newmont looks out onto a sparkling sea where the company dumps more than 50 million metric tons of waste each year - and wonders what the fuss is about.

"I ask people how many dead fish they see," says Australian scientist Grant Batterham, clearly used to defending the mine against its critics. "They say none. And I say that's exactly my point."

Thousands of miles away on Indonesia's Sulawesi island, a local subsidiary of Newmont Mining Corp. and one of its top American executives, Richard Ness, face criminal charges over allegations that waste from its Buyat Bay gold mine polluted the bay and sickened villagers.

But on Sumbawa Island in central Indonesia, the Denver-based company's far larger Batu Hijau copper and gold mine also uses the same practice known as submarine waste disposal - a practice in which it pipes mine waste to a site in the ocean.

Environmentalists say it's unsafe and the Unites States and other countries effectively ban the practice.

The world's largest gold miner denies the practice poses any risks and says depositing waste at sea is safer than storing it on land. But its local unit on Sumbawa - PT Newmont Nusa Tenggara - is taking pre-emptive steps to defend itself in case similar claims to those at Buyat Bay are made in the future.

Later this year, it plans to survey the health and living conditions of villagers close to the mine.

"That way you can avoid the sort of things you saw at Buyat Bay," says Phil Brumit, Batu Hijau's general manager.

The case against Newmont is cheering local and international environmental groups, which have long accused mining companies of skirting laws when exploiting Indonesia's rich natural resources.

The trial of Ness, the president director of Newmont's Indonesian subsidiary Newmont Minahasa Raya, started Friday, when he took the stand to deny the pollution charges. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $68,000 fine if convicted. The trial was adjourned until Aug. 19, when defense lawyers make their plea.

Five other Newmont executives were jailed for a month in September before prosecutors decided not to charge them.

The company also is fighting a $133.6 million civil suit filed by the government in the same case. It has refused to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, insisting the matter should be handled within the company's work contract.

A guilty verdict in the criminal case would increase pressure on the government to withdraw the license it granted the company to dump waste at sea off Sumbawa when the mine began operations in 1999. It would also complicate company plans to use submarine disposal at a second mine it plans to open on Sumbawa in the next few years.

The pollution allegations have added urgency to Newmont's efforts to win friends among the 18,000 people living close to Batu Hijau, where employs more than 4,000 people at the mine.

The company spends $2.5 million each year on community development projects. It has essentially taken over from the local government in providing services in the region, which used to be one of the poorest corners of Indonesia.

It has built large dams that allow villagers to plant rice on previously arid land, and workers have also fixed up scores of decrepit schools and health clinics.

"There has been a dramatic change since Newmont came," said school teacher Jayadi, as several young girls sat quietly reading religious books in a refurbished library. "Now all the children here want to come to school."

But local environmental groups have kept up a steady campaign against the mine.

"The people are worried after what happened in Buyat but they do not have access to political power," said Salamuddin Daeng, a local activist with the Mining Advocacy Network. "Only a tiny group of people have benefited from the mine. The company is brainwashing people."

The Batu Hijau mine, about 745 miles from Jakarta, is Asia's second largest copper mine, and sits in once virgin jungle.

Twenty-four hours a day, a fleet of massive power shovels and haulage trucks slowly eat their way into an ever-expanding pit where a mountain once stood. By the time the mine is scheduled to close down in 2035, some 3.3 billion tons of rock will have been dug up, the company estimates.

From the pit, the rocks go by conveyor belt to a processing plant, where the gold and copper-rich ore is recovered and shipped to smelters around the world.

The waste from the crushed rock - known as tailings - is piped 2 miles into the ocean, where it is released at about 330 feet below the surface of the water. From there, the waste tumbles down an undersea cliff to collect at a depth of 5,000 to 10,000 feet.

At Buyat Bay, the waste is piped 0.6 miles out to sea and dumped at a depth of 270 feet. The indictment alleges that tailings there "were stirred up by waves, currents and rising tides, polluting the water and damaging the environment."

The company says any health problems suffered by villagers near the bay are due to poor hygiene and diet, as well as mercury pollution from thousands of illegal miners that work the hillsides along the bay.

Newmont says the tailings are harmless, and sit at such a deep depth that they do not enter the food chain. In contrast, storing the waste on land would be more risky, it says, because of the threat of earthquakes and heavy rains on the island.

Critics maintain the process should be banned because the technology is unproven and the tailings inevitably pollute the marine environment. The company acknowledges that clean water laws in the United States and Canada effectively ban the practice there.

Since the Sulawesi case, the company initiated legal action against one activist for alleging that local villagers were developing skin diseases. It says that out of 10 green groups it invited to the Batu Hijau mine to discuss their worries, only one showed up.

"If they stay away they can spin whatever story they want," said Brumit, from Brunswick, Ga. "They can't say that `You guys are dumping here and there."

Source: AP