US mining bigwig rejects charges of dumping toxic waste

NO HARM DONE: The Newmont Mining Corp executive said his firm had not damaged the ecosystem with mercury and arsenic waste rock


Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 11

A US gold-mining executive denied that his company dumped dangerous levels of mercury and arsenic-laced waste into an Indonesian bay, as he fought off allegations that could send him to prison for up to 10 years.

Richard Ness said that waste rock, known as tailings, dumped into Buyat Bay by Newmont Mining Corp's now-defunct mine on Sulawesi island did not exceed standards outlined in a 2000 permit.

"For the most part we only discharged roughly 10 percent of the allowable mercury and 7 percent of the permitted arsenic," Ness told a panel of five judges in a sweltering Manado courtroom.

Ness, 56, took the stand for the first time Friday since his trial began just over a year ago and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted and Denver-based Newmont, a possible fine of US$68,000.

A verdict is not expected for several months.

Foreign investors, already wary of legal uncertainties in Indonesia, are closely watching the trial, as are environmentalists, eager to see if a multinational company will be punished for alleged pollution.

Indonesia has accused Newmont of violating environmental laws by dumping toxins from its mine into the bay between 1996 and 2004, when operations ceased, but conflicting test results on the water have convoluted the case.

A police report showed that mercury and arsenic levels in the nearby bay were well beyond national standards, but tests by the World Health Organization, government agencies and several independent groups found that pollutants in the water were within normal limits.

Some villagers also claimed that they became sick as result of the pollutants, but the prosecution has been unable to present anyone with serious skin disorders or other illnesses let alone prove they were linked to the mine's activities.

Ness, who is the president director of Newmont's Indonesian subsidiary Minahasa Raya, maintained that medical experts who studied patients at the clinic in the Buyat Pante hamlet found they were "healthy or healthier" than those admitted to community medical centers elsewhere in Indonesia.

After an eight-hour marathon hearing, Ness told reporters he was convinced the mine's tailings did not adversely affect the bay.

Arsenic levels are "twice as low as that of the English Channel, and that water is very, very clean," he said.

"That tells you how clean Buyat is," he said.

Newmont says its mine waste remained at the bottom of the bay and never entered the bay's ecosystem, but prosecutors say waves stirred up the tailings and that there was a sharp drop in fish stocks.

In February, Newmont inked a US$30 million out-of-court settlement with Indonesia's government to defuse a separate, civil suit over alleged toxic pollution in Buyat Bay, some 2,100km northeast of Jakarta.

Friday's hearing was adjourned until Sept. 22, when prosecutors are scheduled to announce their sentencing demands.