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Mining in Indonesia taking a heavy social, environmental toll

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In a patch of rainforest in northern Sumatra, a 28-year-old in jeans and tall rubber boots snubs out his cigarette and pulls a headlamp over his short black hair. Standing under a tarp, he flicks the light on and leans over the entrance of a narrow shaft lined with wooden planks that he and other miners cut from trees that once stood here. He gives a sharp tug on a rope that dangles 100 meters, plateauing in sections, and slides down. For hours, the man, Sarial, will use a pick to scrape away and bag rocks that are hauled to the surface by another miner, using a wooden wheel.

Inside this ore, being dug up daily in the Ulu Masen “protected forest,” is gold.

Metal drums spin loudly nearby, each crushing about 10 pounds of rocks. What the miners have poured into each drum has long been banned for such use in the developing world: mercury. Two teaspoons of the silver, metallic substance, bought from Medan, were put into each drum. The amalgam will be collected in three hours and the spent “tailings” waste will dumped into terraced pools and left to dry.

Bukari, a 40-year-old local with a thick build, shrugs when asked if he fears the mercury with harm him. “One day, maybe. But it’s still worth it.”

A view of a 200-person mining camp inside PT Woyla Aceh Minerals’ concession. An estimated 3,000 miners are scattered throughout the concession inside a designated ‘protected’ rainforest, where any clear-cutting not conducted by the company is illegal. Woyla cleared a hectare but its own activities have ceased for now.

The nearby community of Gampong claims it didn’t realize the forests contained gold until a private mining company, PT Woyla Aceh Minerals – one of at least 13 with concessions here – started exploratory drilling about a decade ago. When it halted operations several years ago, some 3,000 miners moved in. They are mostly local and were trained by a technician from Java.

“We’re happy the company left,” said Bukari. With good quality gold here, the roughly 200 men collectively earn about 3 billion rupiah ($300,000) a month.

“Now all of a sudden, men have motorbikes and can build a house,” M. Sabi, a community organizer, said. “But the forest is being destroyed.”

The clear-cutting of the rainforest by miners and loggers has driven some of its remaining elephants onto roads and crops, and conflict with farmers is on the rise. One elephant died last week after being snared on a wire.

When it rains, the toxic mine tailings will find their way down the steep slopes into a river as runoff. But the river passes through a another community, “so they don’t think about it,” Pak Sulaiman, a local man, said.

A nearby mining site, inside the same ‘protected forest.’ Critically endangered Sumatran elephants and sun bears share this same mountaintop.

A National Problem

Across Indonesia and elsewhere in the third world, small-scale mining has spiked in the last decade, rising in tandem with the price of gold. Experts say there now some 250,000 miners here – about 1 million if peripheral workers are included, on nearly every island in the archipelago. By some estimates, they collectively produce about 60 tons of gold each year, compared with official Indonesian exports of 100 tons a year.

Another Minimata Bay?

In Minamata City, Japan, the Chisso Corporation pumped 627 tons of methyl-mercury in wastewater into the bay for 36 years until 1968. Some 2,265 people were diagnosed with what is now called ‘Minimata disease’ and 1,784 of them died. As with most Japanese, seafood was the staple of their diet.

In central Sulawesi, small-scale miners have been using mercury for five to six years on a massive scale at two locations on a hill, “Poboya,” overlooking the city of Palu. Palu sits in a valley on a bay. A significant amount of mercury pollution is burning into the atmosphere and is spreading over the city. Tailings travel down the Palu River and then into the bay. Mercury is in the groundwater and overflow, especially during the rainy season, said Sumali Agrawal, technical director for Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta, who has studied the area. The mercury has been mixed with cyanide, so it’s soluble. The river is also a source of water for the suburbs, some of which are right on its banks.

Agrawal said that while there is a need for further study on mercury in the seafood, bay and atmosphere, he and others have tracked well over 100 tons of mercury emissions a year. Those are the same levels that Minimata recorded, but in less time. The amount of mercury hitting the bay directly is less. But Palu is just three kilometers from it and there is an elevation to the mountain, so it falls quickly downstream, he noted. And in each rainy season, runoff flows into the bay.

Four years ago, Agrawal got the attention of Dr. Emile Salim, Indonesia’s former Environment Minister, who expressed concern. An expert gave a full presentation to city leaders, but there was a political snag: the local mining concession was being vied for, so no action was taken.

He noted that methyl mercury takes 10 to 15 years before you see an accumulation on the scale of Minimata.

“The next generation will be the ones to feel this impact,” Agrawal said.

The use of mercury in this unregulated mining here is illegal. Yet parts of Indonesia now have the highest levels of mercury contamination on earth: up to 1000 milligrams per kilogram in the soil, according to Chris Anderson, a scientist working to mitigate the problem.

In Sumbawa in southern Indonesia, grinding drums are visible at “on every road stop,” said Agrawal. And on Buru Island, in the famed spice islands, he describes “a gold rush.”

East of Bali, on quiet, rural Lombok, four towering vats used in a “second-phase” operation are plainly visible just off a road leading to a new eco resort. Bags of slurry from grinding machines are brought here and poured into the vats and mixed with cyanide and left to leach for 48 hours. Residual is recovered with activated carbon. But the soluble mercury is not absorbed well and is discharged with tailings. A large pond of this red-brown waste sits just 10 feet from a canal that empties into a coral reef.

“This is a mercury-cyanide bomb,” said Marcello Veiga, who was a small-scale mining consultant for the United Nations for 30 years, and examined the site with this reporter. “It’s much more toxic than mercury alone for fish. The cyanide depletes oxygen, so fish die from a lack of it. It’s a tragedy.”

Rice collected by Anderson and several colleagues at a tailings pond here and one in Sumbawa showed methyl mercury concentrations greater than 100 parts per billion, five times above the legal limit in China. But he stresses there is no safe level in rice or other crops.

In Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, men dislodge about 100 tons of sand a day to deliver gold, blasting the land with pressure hoses until it becomes a slurry. Then they pump the mixture over the carpeted sluice, exposing about 10 tons of ore an hour, said Sumali Agriwal, technical director of Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta, a development organization. They wash this concentrate in a bucket mixture with mercury to catch as much gold as possible. About 20 grams of mercury are lost each time, less than in hard-rock mining, but more land is destroyed.

Large swaths of rainforests that once sheltered orangutans, he said, are now a ‘moonscape,’ he said. “This can’t ever be reforested.”

Some thirty gold shops in Kalimantan have been burning gold amalgam for more than a decade, sending mercury vapors into the atmosphere.

A “second-phase” operation on Lombok, just 10 meters from a waterway that spills into the Bali Sea about 200 yards away. A mangrove and coral reefs ring the shore here.

No oversight

The Indonesian government recently set up a task force to examine small-scale mining, which it recognizes is a growing problem, said Abdul Harris, a specialist with the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), a government-affiliated research institute.

But so far no agency has taken action to address the issue or is even monitoring contamination. He notes the government will soon have to. Indonesia has committed to eliminate the use of mercury in mining by 2018.

For now, Harris said it is waiting for parliament to pass a law that will force individual miners or small groups to apply for local permits. The miners, Harris said, “need to be integrated into the economy.”

If the law passes, local officials will have to look after the environment, “and they are going to be reluctant,” Harris said.

One reason? Money. Industry experts say some regents, known as “bupati,” collect substantial side payments from both private mining companies and small-scale miners.

The national government, meanwhile, is also pushing to more fully exploit Indonesia’s mineral wealth.

A map of the PT Sorikmas mining concession, overlayed on a map of Batang Gadis National Park. The areas in pink include the boundary of the park in 2004. The mining concession is outlined in red. All of Sorikmas’ concession was excluded from the park after a court ruling in 2012, after the company filed a lawsuit. Click map to enlarge.

Less Water, Contamination Concerns

Sumatra is a key part of this strategy. Hong-Kong based G-Resources has just begun gold mining production within a 1,640 square-kilometer concession in the the Batang Toru, where critically endangered orangutans and dozens of other threatened species are found.

To the south, Sihayo Gold’s Indonesian subsidiary, PT Sorikmas, has a large mining concession that is carved into Batang Gadis National Park. The local community has accused it of draining the water table, leaving less water to irrigate its rice fields. The river through Banya Pamyabungan, or “mine city,” is down about 4 meters.

After Sorikmas laid off workers last July, hundreds of protesters burned some of its buildings. Those workers had maps of where gold was located and now some 2,000 miners and rock haulers have taken over the high hills in a corner of its concession.

A Possible waste fix?

New Zealander Chris Anderson doesn’t want to let residual gold sit in mercury-laden tailings waste. Instead, he proposes to “farm it” – and save the soil in the process.

Chris Anderson stands next to a plot on Lombok where he has planted various types of plants to see which will prove the best at sucking mercury and residual gold from mine tailings.

The Massey University professor is working with Indonesian scientists on Lombok on a novel experiment to extract gold from tailings safely. In a 25-meter by 2-meter rice paddy filled with tailings, he has planted casssava, corn and soybean seedlings. “Some plants can target heavy metals,” he explains. The best so far? A plant from South Africa called Berkheya coddi, which he says will pull 1,000 times more mercury out than other plants.

The bonus is that the plants also vacuum up platinum and gold in the process. He treated the soil with a diluted concentration of cyanide, which eventually breaks down in the soil. The gold is then inside the plant. The process sickens the plant, often turning its leaves purple. It is then harvested and fed with other plants into a metal smelter.

He expects each planted hectare to produce up to a kilogram of gold, processed into a metal “coin” worth about $50,000, and 250 grams of mercury a year. Bamboo could also be planted in tailings as a cash crop.

“I’m not arguing this is a way to make a profit, but it is a way to incentivize miners and address this problem.”

Hoods to capture mercury in the air

In Kalimantan, the Blacksmith Institute has been offering gold shops on the island a product to reduce mercury vapors and recapture mercury from amalgam: simple fume hoods.

The shops that are now using them are able to trap about 90 percent of former atmospheric emissions.

Rini Sulaiman, an advisory board member for the institute, said she has offered the hoods to a local health and environment agency.

“The guys want to be more efficient with mercury. It’s about keeping as much of that as they can,” she said. “But not because of the environment. Some of these officials actually own some of processing units.”

Sorikmas did not address whether it has contributed to scarcer water through clear-cutting and drilling in exploration sites. In a statement, it said it does not condone the illegal mining activity inside the concession and noted its workforce varies from time to time “subject to the field activities that we are engaged in.”

With clear-cutting and erosion at the mountaintop sites shared by the miners and the company, storms in February triggered flooding and landslides. A couple months ago, several miners died after their 50-meter-deep hole collapsed on top of them. Locals say about 50 have died so far.

The ore they mine is being processed at about 100 smelter sites scattered around a nearby town. After sifting the amalgam in buckets, men here pour mercury-laden tailings into small ditches that feed its waterways.

“Many locals think if they see a snail or fish alive, the water is fine,” said Kusandi Oldani, a director for Walhi, the Indonesian chapter of Friends of the Earth. Men in a nearby village say most there believe the fish is poisoned and haven’t eaten it for about five years. There are also fewer fish and shrimp to eat.

“I miss cooking fish,” said Noni Hairani, an older woman. “We’re eating more chicken, if we can buy it.”

In a nearby river, naked children splashed. In these rivers, the mercury mixes with bacteria and becomes methylmercury, which is far more toxic and accumulates up the food chain. Experts say villagers who consume fish here, especially children, will be at risk of learning disabilities to having very diminished mental capacity. Mercury can also cause kidney problems, arthritis, miscarriages, respiratory failure and even death.

Monitoring the health of the miners themselves is difficult because many are migrants, said Rini Sulaiman, an advisory board member of Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta. “They may not be around to count when they die.” A 2003 study by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization of a mining community in Kalimantan found mercury intoxication among men working in smelters. Women there had high levels of mercury in breast milk.

“They will die by the thousands,” said Viega, who studied sites in Indonesia for five years.

Lombok. A vein within the rocks here may produce a high concentration of gold, or it may not. It’s a gamble. Sometimes a mining group of five to six men makes a lot of money, sometimes it makes hardly a rupiah. Each group has also spent large sums on mercury and equipment and in many cases pays off middlemen and local regents or officials.

For weeks, most of the mining at hilltops here has been halted under a temporary agreement between Sihayo and local miners. At a village coffee shop, an older man named Baginda said that before thousands of men started digging in the hills, he would see sun bears, deer and even tigers cross his land. “I miss the animals,” he said. “When work starts again, the ones left will flee or disappear.”

On one recent day at dusk, smoke drifted from just one tarp-covered camp high on a ridge. Here, at 7,000 feet, the air was cool and the only sound for several minutes was the loud squawk of hornbills. A dozen bats darted under the canopy and, beyond the torn up river bed, patches of thick forest still covered the surrounding slopes. And in that stillness, just two days prior, a lone tiger crossed the same muddy path.

A camera trap captures a Sumatran tiger in the Batang Toru forests, where G-Resources has recently begun full production at its Martabe mine. (Courtesy of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program). To the south, Pt. Sorikmas’ mining concession was carved out of Batang Gadis National Park. These mountains are key tiger habitat and as land is cleared for mining, conflicts with villagers are on the rise.

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