Frustration over light penalties for a coal mine that polluted Indonesia’s river

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  • In February, a coal slurry spill into a river in Indonesian Borneo killed thousands of fish and forced downstream municipalities to cut off water supplies.
  • The local government issued a decree asking the company to repair the embankments, establish an inspection system, develop a rapid response plan and replace dead fish.
  • Activists say the official response is too light-hearted, noting that Indonesian law allows criminal prosecutions for environmental destruction, as well as penalties such as revocation of mining licenses.

After a series of coal slurry spills into the Malinau River in Indonesian Borneo, residents and environmental groups are calling for tougher penalties and for national banks to pull out of the coal industry.

The last spill in february at a facility run by PT Kayan Putra Utama Coal (KPUC) in North Kalimantan province, killed thousands of fish and forced downstream municipalities to cut off their water supplies.

The Malinau district government in North Kalimantan immediately issued a decree requiring the company to repair the embankments, establish an inspection system, develop a rapid response plan and replace the embankments. dead fish. The company itself excuse, committing to providing clean water and reseeding the river with fish and shrimp larvae.

However, the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), a watchdog group, says these steps are not enough to demand reform.

“This is not a sanction but a recommendation,” said Andri Usman of Jatam.

KPUC had to shut down operations for 60 days in 2017 following a similar spill from another miner in the same area. This company, along with KPUC and two others, subsequently signed an agreement that if another spill did occur, their mining licenses would be revoked.

“The 2017 sanctions are heavier than today, while the current impact is more severe than the 2017 case,” Usman said.

Dead fish collected by the inhabitants of the polluted Malinau river. Image courtesy of Rosiena Kila.

Jatam suggested that the slight sanction is linked to the fact that one of the owners of the KPUC is a prominent businessman who supported the election of the current vice-governor of North Kalimantan, Yansen Tipa Padan. Before being elected, Yansen was the district chief of Malinau when the current mining permits were initially approved. Former vice-governor Udin Hianggio is co-owner of two other coal companies, including PT Baradinamika Muda Sukses (BMS), responsible for the slurry spill in 2017. The fourth company named in this incident belongs to the son of the former chief from the district of Malinau, Marthin Billa.

Muhammad Jamil of the Jatam National Office points to several existing laws that could be cited to impose sanctions on the KPUC, including the suspension or revocation of permits, or to initiate criminal proceedings for environmental destruction.

“Neither the district environmental agency nor the water board will talk about these impacts,” Jamil said. “But it’s not just about the waterway, it’s also about the local community around the Malinau River. It destroys the livelihoods that depend on the river. “

According to Jamil, the local police have several legal channels to pursue the actual punishment of KPUC, including going after the company based on the 2017 agreement it signed.

“The problem is whether they want it or not. This is what we are waiting for. The path is clear, it’s just a matter of commitment, ”said Jamil.

Ahmad Ashov of Bersihkan Indonesia is also working to end the trend towards impunity for corporate environmental crimes. He said the best way to prevent problems arising from the coal industry – which range from land disputes, water pollution, carbon emissions, to even higher vulnerability to COVID-19 – is to close it completely.

“Let [the coal] stay in the ground, ”Ashov said. “Because we already know the impact.”

Dead fish collected by the inhabitants of the polluted Malinau river. Image courtesy of Rosiena Kila.

Much of what drives the industry forward is bank financing, said AH Maftuchan, executive director of sustainable finance watchdog Perkumpulan Prakarsa. Six national banks – Bank Mandiri, BNI, BRI, BCA, BTN and Indonesia Eximbank – issued $ 6.29 billion in loans to coal companies between October 2018 and October 2020, he said.

Outside Indonesia, more than 130 globally important banks have pledged to divest from coal mines or coal-fired power plants, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. However, money is still circulating in the country, including from China, which invested $ 9.3 billion in Indonesia’s coal power between 2000 and 2019.

Maftuchan said he was encouraged by the recent release of the Government’s Financial Services Authority (OKJ) Phase II of its sustainable finance roadmap, which encourages financial institutions to apply environmental and social governance to their activities. However, critics say these guidelines are not enough without concrete actions, divestment deadlines and strict enforcement.

Banner Image: A fisherman catches fish in the upper waters of the Malinau River; the river is an important food resource in the region. Photo by Michael Padmanaba / CIFOR via Flickr.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was the first published on our Indonesian site March 5, 2021.

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