Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 11 News List

Newmont executive scoffs at Indonesian pollution allegations

AP , MANADO, INDONESIA

An American who heads the Indonesian branch of the world's largest gold producer blasted pollution charges against the company as "silly," and said he was looking forward to taking the stand to clear his name.

Richard Ness, president director of Newmont Mining Corp's Indonesian subsidiary, told reporters that his Sulawesi island mine discharged only 3 grams of mercury per day into the sea during nine-and-a-half years of operations.

"That would fit in a 1-liter bottle," he said, adding that such a small amount of mercury could neither endanger humans nor harm the marine ecosystem.

The Indonesian government has accused the Denver-based company of pumping millions of tonnes of arsenic and mercury-laced mine waste into the Buyat Bay, with prosecutors alleging some villagers developed skin diseases and other illnesses.

Ness faces 10 years in prison if convicted and his company a US$68,000 fine. The criminal trial, which began just over a year ago, has been complicated by conflicting test results on the water.

A police report showed that mercury and arsenic levels were well beyond national standards, but the WHO, government agencies and several independent groups found that pollutants were within normal limits.

"So which is wrong? The police? Or everyone else?" Ness asked.

Foreign investors anxious about bureaucratic and legal uncertainties in the country are closely watching the trial, as are environmentalists eager to see if the cash-strapped government will punish a multinational for the first time in recent history.

Ness had been scheduled to take the stand on Friday, but the lengthy appearance of two prosecution witnesses earlier in the day meant he has to wait until next week's hearing. He is expected to spend hours on the stand this coming Friday, with judges, the defense and the prosecution all given a chance to grill him.

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