US mining company Newmont Corp -- the world's largest producer of gold -- has admitted it pumped tonnes of mercury into the air and water at an Indonesian mine, but its CEO insisted yesterday the releases were within the country's environmental standards and posed no health risk.
However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the release of 33 tonnes of mercury into the air and water over several years at the gold mine in central Indonesia "a major concern."
Newmont's admission is the latest setback for the company in its six-month battle to defend itself against pollution allegations in Indonesia, one of several countries where it has faced similar accusations. Indonesian authorities have accused its local subsidiary, New-mont Minahasa Raya, of dumping heavy metals into Buyat Bay on Sulawesi island, causing residents to develop skin diseases and tumors.
In a phone interview, Wayne Murdy, the CEO of the Denver-based company, acknowledged the mine released 17 tonnes of waste mercury into the air and 16 tonnes into the water over five years.
But he said the emissions were below Indonesian government standards -- which he said amounted to the equivalent of 22 tonnes per year until 2000, when the country lowered the permissible limit to 11 tonnes per year.
"We were well below any Indonesian standards and well below any US Environmental Protection standards," he said from Denver. "We have an excellent environmental record worldwide."
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that an internal company report described the mercury release as "significant" and that a cleaning system to control the problem often did not work. The internal report also said the company wasn't abiding by its public claims that it was upholding US environmental standards, the Times said.
Murdy said the article "draws incorrect conclusions."
"It makes me feel very upset because there has been no scientific studies that anyone has referenced that shows any of these allegations are true," Murdy said.
An EPA staff member, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the mercury release was "significant by American standards. It's a huge amount of mercury to be releasing into the environment," the official said.
Indonesia plans to put on trial next month five Newmont executives, accusing them of corporate crimes in connection with the alleged pollution.
Sick villagers have also filed a US$543 million lawsuit against the company.
The EPA staffer said Newmont could not have operated the same way in the US.
"They would be required to have pollution control equipment and it would have to work," the staff member said. "If it was not operating properly, they would have to notify EPA how it would be fixed. If they didn't, they would be subject to criminal and civil penalties."
The company has said the EPA does not require a permit for mercury emissions or review of a site that releases less than 10 tonnes of mercury per year.
Tests on the bay have produced conflicting results. The World Health Organization and an initial Environment Ministry report found the water unpolluted. but a subsequent ministry study found that arsenic levels in the seabed were 100 times higher at the waste-dumping site than in other parts of the bay.
Newmont, which operates on five continents, has faced a string of pollution accusations in Peru, Turkey and the state of Nevada.