What you need to know
Residents of villages along the Santan River in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, have long complained they are suffering from pollution due to coal mining and burning in the area.
By Tommy Apriando
Residents of villages in Indonesian Borneo who have long complained that a coal company is polluting local waterways have won their first victory in court, but activists say the sanctions against the company don’t go far enough.
On Dec. 4, 2017, the Tenggarong District Court in East Kalimantan ordered PT Indominco Mandiri to pay a fine of 2 billion rupiah ($145,400) after finding it guilty of dumping waste without a permit, a violation of Indonesia’s Environmental Protection and Management Act.
The court found Indominco had dumped some 4,000 tons of fly ash and bottom ash, both residues of burning coal and classified as toxic and hazardous waste, in the vicinity of its coal-fired power plant.
Indominco operates mines in three districts in East Kalimantan province: Kutai Kartanegara, Bontang and East Kutai. The company also owns a 2X7-megawatt power plant that straddles the villages of Central Santan and Santan Ilir in Kutai Kartanegara.
The company is a subsidiary of publicly listed mining holding company PT Indo Tambangraya Megah, which in turn is majority-owned by Bangkok-based Banpu Public Company, Thailand’s largest producer and distributor of coal.
Calls for tougher sanctions
In response to the verdict, the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), a civil society organization focused on supporting communities affected by mining operations, urged the government and the court to impose stiffer penalties on the company and its officials.
Under Indonesia’s environmental law, any person found dumping waste without a proper permit can be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to 3 billion rupiah ($218,100).
“We want the state to enforce corporate law, not half-measures; a fine of 2 billion rupiah that allows the company to return to operation while improving waste management, in our view, will not impact the corporation. We want the company’s permit to be revoked and the company to leave,” Merah Johansyah Ismail, the Jatam national coordinator, said on March 12. “All of their financial support and financial backers must be brought to account.”
The verdict against Indominco, Merah said, came after the Ministry of Environment and Forestry received a report from residents of Santan village detailing the impacts of the coal company on the community since it began mining, burning coal at its power plant, and dumping waste.
Jatam’s East Kalimantan coordinator, Pradarma Rupang, said the problems with Indominco were not limited to waste dumping. He cited other issues such as diverting the Santan River and mining outside of its concession. Residents in the area, he said, “have long felt the negative impact of Indominco, from mining, operating their power plant, and waste dumping. The mining license of the company should be revoked,” he said.
Citing a 2016 Greenpeace report, Pradarma said the company had directly dumped waste in the headwaters of the Santan River. “This impacts the socioeconomic life of the community. The water changes color, many fish have died, and residents often complain of itching,” he said, adding that since 2005 residents had stopped using water from the Santan River for cooking and drinking.
Several coal companies operate in the Santan River watershed, Pradarma said, but Indominco, with its 251-square-kilometer (97-square-mile) concession, is the largest.
Romiansyah, a university student from Santan Ilir village, said the company’s top officials should be punished, and that the fine of 2 billion rupiah was very little compared to the environmental destruction that had occurred. “We want the Indominco power plant to be shut down,” he said.
The Santan River countryside is home to rich agricultural land, used to grow coconut, corn, cassava, rice and vegetables. Coconut plantations are a mainstay for the majority of residents alongside the river, but many of these have been damaged or destroyed from pollution from the power plant, located just 500 meters from residential areas.
The power plant’s electricity doesn’t reach the three villages in Santan, Romiansyah said. “The power plant is only a burden for the people, and a cause of environmental destruction,” he said. Their village, he added, had been besieged from the upstream by mining and the power plant, to the downstream, where the pollution flows. Coal dust cakes the roofs of the houses in Santan Ilir, contaminating the rainwater runoff that the villagers collect for their consumption, Romiansyah said.
The villagers have already staged several demonstrations in protest at the company’s operations. “We want it to stop because there is no benefit for the residents,” Romiansyah said.
A.H. Bramantya Putra, a director of Indominco Mandiri, told Mongabay-Indonesia the company respected the court decision to impose the fine.
“Indominco accepts the verdict of the Tenggarong District Court, and we have already fulfilled our obligations based on the verdict,” he said. He added Indominco paid the fine on Dec. 19, 2017.
However, he said, while the company was sanctioned for illegal dumping it was not proven to have polluted the environment around its temporary storage area for fly ash and bottom ash. He said this was supported by analysis by an accredited laboratory of water and soil quality and tests of toxic waste characteristics. A phased cleanup of the fly ash and bottom ash in the temporary storage area has already begun.
Bramantya also said Indominco paid attention to the environment and the possible impact of its operations on the surrounding community. “We will comply strictly with the company’s sustainability policies and international environmental standards, as well as government regulations,” he said.
He said the company would continue to monitor the environment in cooperation with accredited laboratories to ensure compliance with regulations.
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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site. The original article can be found here.
TNL Editor: Morley J Weston