Out of Sight, Out of Mine: Ocean Dumping of Mine Wastes

Robert Moran, Amanda Reichelt-Brushett, and Roy Young

Beginning in 1996 and continuing through at least mid-2004, the Newmont Minahasa Raya gold mine dumped 2,000 tons per day of wastes into the tropical, coral-rich waters of Buyat Bay, off the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia-waters that previously had been the main source of food and income for local families. Soon stories began circulating that the fish were disappearing and that those remaining had deformities. Villagers also complained of strange skin rashes, tumors, and other forms of disease, all of which they claimed started after the waste disposal began. An independent team of scientists was commissioned by the Indonesian government to review the information and concluded that contamination by the mine had occurred. Newmont Mining Corporation, the U.S.-based parent company, commissioned its own studies and continually claimed that the data showed no water contamination-although they neglected to mention that these very studies clearly revealed the polluting of bay sediments by mercury, arsenic, antimony, and other metals and the likely uptake of these pollutants by bottom-dwelling organisms.

Buyat stories appeared everywhere in the media throughout the Pacific and quickly were investigated by the New York Times. Soon the Indonesian government arrested the head of Newmont Minahasa Raya and five other employees. A series of lawsuits followed. In 2007, an Indonesian court found both Newmont and its local director not guilty of the alleged crimes, but the state prosecutor subsequently appealed the ruling to the Indonesian Supreme Court. Some villagers were relocated in response to fears about the alleged contamination, but the claims and counterclaims have left the villagers confused and the issue hanging. Meanwhile, Newmont received permission from the Indonesian government to commence operating a copper-gold mine, Batu Hijau, which dumps up to 160,000 tons per day of wastes off the coast of another Indonesian island, Sumbawa-70 to 80 times the volume of waste disposed into Buyat Bay.