In 2004, the Newmont Minahasa Raya (NMR) gold mine began closing down its operations in North Sulawesi, leaving local communities in Buyat Bay and Ratatatok with a destructive legacy: long-lasting environmental damage, economic decline, and a host of health problems. Affected communities have appealed to NMR, a subsidiary of Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation (94 percent ownership of NMR), and the Indonesian government to address their concerns.
NMR was the first mine in Indonesia to dump mine waste into the ocean. Known as submarine tailings disposal (STD), the method of waste disposal has been banned in many countries due to its harmful environmental and health impacts. NMR piped its mining waste approximately ten kilometers from the open-pit and discharged it into Buyat Bay at a depth of 82 meters. From when it opened in 1996 until it closed in 2004, the mine dumped more than 4 million tons of mine waste into the bay.
Coastal dumping of tailings is a grave ecological concern because coastal waters are biologically the richest parts of the oceans, and because many open-ocean species depend on coastal habitat for part of their life cycle. It is also a hazard to public health. In addition to facing severe coastal pollution and the destruction of local fisheries, villagers living around Buyat Bay have reported skin rashes and sores on their bodies, severe headaches, tumors and reproductive health problems.
Tailings Break Loose
Tailings pipes are notorious for breaking and leaking tailings, both on land and in the sea. NMR's tailing pipe has broken multiple times, leaking waste into waters as shallow as ten meters deep and seriously impacting coral reefs and marine life. A 2003 report by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) found that NMR's tailings contain four times the government-allowed level of cyanide and high levels of mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. A team of researchers led by Dr. Ir. Rizal Max Rompas, toxicologist at Sam Ratulangi University, North Sulawesi also found similar results in 1999; the amount of toxic compounds in the area exceeded the legal threshold. But the report's recommendation that the tailings disposal system be evaluated and redesigned was ignored by both NMR and the Indonesian government.
Buyat Bay communities are demanding that Newmont clean up its mess.
Community Groups Stand Up
Despite facing intimidation, the affected communities of Buyat Bay and Ratatatok have pressured NMR and the Indonesian government to take seriously the mine's closure and ensure that the health and livelihood of local villagers is restored. Their demands include full clean-up and reclamation, free health care, and fair compensation for lost lands and livelihoods.
The environmental group WALHI filed suit against the CEO of Indonesian subsidiary Newmont Minahasa Raya, Rick Ness, charging him with polluting the bay with toxic waste. Courts largely dismissed the lawsuits after years of proceedings and millions of dollars on a legal and public relations campaign to exonerate Ness. The company did, however, agree to an out-of-court compensation of $30 million for villagers. In 2007, Ness sued the New York Times and one of its reporters for defamation for over $64 million but the court dismissed the case.
Batu Hijau Follows Dangerous Road
Another Newmont-operated mine, Batu Hijau, located on the remote island of Sumbawa in the south central portion of the Indonesian archipelago, is dumping 120,000 tons of tailings per day into Senunu Bay. Batu Hijau is expected to remain operational until 2025. With 40 mining companies waiting to secure government permits to employ submarine tailings disposal, community and environmental groups are concerned about the damage that could result if mining companies proceed with these unacceptable methods and are not held accountable for the pollution and damage caused by their operations.