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Coal mine diverts Sumatran river without a permit, leaving villagers short of clean water

The low flow of the Sungumai River makes it difficult for Halimah to wash laundry. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Since coal mining company PT Seluma Prima Coal set up operations in 2015, residents of Rangkiling Bakti village in Jambi, Sumatra say they have suffered from a lack of clean water as well as from landslides and flooding.
  • Although a permit to do so is still being processed, PT SPC and its partners have diverted the course of Sungumai River, which runs through their concession.
  • The company has drilled wells and promised other social initiatives, but area residents have continued to protest, calling for more compensation and for legal measures to be taken against the company.

JAMBI, Indonesia — Sitting on a plank balanced over what remains of the Sungumai River, Halimah dug out handfuls of sand from the riverbed, trying to create enough depth to scoop up a dipper full of water.

People living here in Rangkiling Bakti village, part of Jambi province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, have for decades relied on this tributary of the Tembesi River for bathing and washing clothes.

“Back then, the water was clear. Now it’s murky like this,” the 48-year-old woman told Mongabay-Indonesia in February, as she scrubbed laundry in the shallow stream.

Village women like Halimah, in blue, now struggle to wash clothes in the shallow, murky stream. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay-Indonesia.

Two hundred meters away from where she sat is a mining site operated by PT Seluma Prima Coal (SPC). Since the company arrived on the scene in 2015, the lives of villagers like Halimah have been significantly affected.

The Jakarta-based company is currently achieving nearly 90 percent of its production target of 50,000 metric tons (55,115 U.S. tons) of coal per month. Over 130 trucks are used to transport the coal every day. The company has altered the course of the river and built roads in the area, depriving local homes and farms of fresh water while reportedly increasing instances of landslides and flooding.

Rangkiling Bakti village secretary Prismar recounted that prior to the company’s arrival, the Sungumai River was four meters (13 feet) wide. Then the company redirected the stream, creating an artificial ditch next to the mining location, drying out the Sungumai and filling it with sand and mud.

“There were many fish, but now there aren’t any left,” Prismar said. “They’ve all gone.” Now, he said, people from the village are considering hiking a kilometer to the main branch of the Tembesi River just to wash and bathe.

Only a handful of families have wells, he added, but even those are suffering. “The wells are drying up. Before, you could dig five, six meters deep to find water. Now, they compete with the mining pits so all the water goes there [to the mine],” he said.

PT SPC has tried to alleviate the situation by helping to drill six wells for the villagers, ranging from 30 to 50 meters (98 to 164 feet) deep. But Prismar said the water quality isn’t great. “If we use it to cook rice, the rice turns yellow, so we are scared to use this water to cook. At most we use it to wash dishes, and we still bathe in the river.”

In addition to water scarcity, locals say the company’s activities have triggered more frequent flooding and landslides affecting locally owned plantations. One rubber farm Mongabay visited was covered in mud washed in from the dirt road that leads to the PT SPC concession.

Sayiful Islam, owner of this rubber plantation, told Mongabay Indonesia his trees died after being inundated during a flood. Facing an increase in flash floods and landslides as well as a shortage of clean water, locals point to topographical changes caused by the mine, noting that a water culvert was filled with dirt following a landslide. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay-Indonesia.

Redirecting the river

PT SPC, along with fellow mining company PT Marlin Serantau Alam (MSA) and their contractor PT Universal Support (US), produce low ash and low sulfur coal used for power plants in Jambi province and sold for export. After submitting their permit request in 2009, PT SPC secured a 1,116-hectare (2,758-acre) concession in Sarolangun district, with reported coal reserves of 30 million metric tons, and began operating in 2015.

The Sungumai River flows through PT SPC’s concession, splitting it in two. This, said the company’s Mining Technical Head Syarifuddin Gaffaru, is why the company altered the river’s course.

However, the company has not yet obtained the permit that would allow them to legally redirect the course of the waterway.

“In 2016, I sent a request to the [Sarolangun] district government but by 2017 there was no response,” Syarifuddin explained. He went to the provincial level, and was eventually directed to the national Ministry of Public Works and Housing in Jakarta.

“We submitted our request at that time. If we had waited, maybe we still would not have begun operations,” he said. The permit is still being processed, Syarifuddin added, and the company has moved ahead without it.

The diverted Sungumai River. Village officials say that prior to the arrival of the coal mine, the river was four meters (13 feet) wide. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay-Indonesia.

Syarifuddin insisted the problem lies with government inaction. “In 2017, I again submitted a request to the provincial government but still received no clarification,” he said.

Ibnu Ziady, secretary of public works at the Sarolangun district Public Works and Housing Agency, told Mongabay the permit was delayed because his office does not know how to make the technical recommendations regarding permits for river recoursing.

“We need to learn more from our colleagues in the province about the formatting, the form, and all,” he said, adding that he didn’t know the requirements to obtain the permit. However, he has asked the natural resources head at his office to coordinate with the provincial office about both the formatting and the substance of the permit.

“We are still learning the format. Once we have it, we’ll do it as soon as possible. Why would we delay?” he said.

This river redirection is only one of the problems facing PT SPC’s permit. In September 2017, PT SPC had to submit an addendum to its environmental impact assessment (EIA) to amend a previously submitted document.

In its original EIA request, the company stated that the distribution of coal in their concession lay toward the east, whereas studies show the deposits are more to the north.

Heri Kuslaini, head of the local government’s environmental division, said all the addendum documentation was complete, and explained that his office will discuss the matter at its next meeting. “Once they fulfill everything, then we can grant the environmental permit,” he said.

Novaizal, head of oversight at the provincial mining ministry, suspects the mistake was due to the previous concession owner. “PT SPC was a ‘take over,’ so when they took over [the concession], the environmental documents and the exploration reports had already been completed,” he explained.

In a separate case in October 2017, PT SPC was ordered to cease operations for failing to secure another permit — for liquid waste treatment. The district government ordered PT SPC to stop its activities for two weeks.

Coal particles pollute the Sungumai River. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay-Indonesia.

Village protests

On Jan. 24, dozens of villagers aired their complaints in a demonstration in front of PT SPC’s entrance. They demanded the company take more responsibility for environmental degradation in the area resulting from mining activities.

The protest was organized by Asmara, head of the People’s Defender Forum (Forpera) in Sarolangun. Asmara claims PT SPC, along with PT MSA and PT US, have been negligent towards the environment. Asmara also claimed the company had not been paying the agreed 2,000-rupiah ($0.14) toll for each coal truck entering the village.

In addition to environmental concerns, Asmara also highlighted the issue of day laborers who were recently fired by the company. They also joined the protest.

The demonstrators made a series of demands including monetary “social compensation,” free healthcare for villagers living near the mines and more local job creation. Asmara also demanded that the companies drill 15 new wells and build a communal facility for the villagers to wash and bathe.

Three days after the protest, the Sarolangun police mediated a meeting between the villagers and representatives of the companies.

Raja, a representative of PT US, said roughly half of the company’s employees were local. Out of 140 employees, 84 are from the communities near the mine, he said. “Then you add the 100 day laborers who are also locals,” he said.  The company adheres to labor regulations and provides overtime for its workers, he added.

As for healthcare, Syarifuddin of PT SPC said they have included it as part of their annual budget and work plan, which was being discussed at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Jakarta. “Regarding healthcare, we have included it in our programming. In 2018 we can execute it,” he said.

After three hours of intense discussion, the parties agreed on 8 points, including the drilling of new wells for the villagers. The companies stated that they will further discuss compensation with the villagers.

Every day, more than 130 trucks transport coal from PT SPC’s concession. In February, activists said the village was not receiving the agreed upon toll of 2,000 rupiah per vehicle. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/ Mongabay-Indonesia.

However, weeks after the meeting, progress looked slow. As a result, on Feb. 15, a group of university students from the Students for Jambi Alliance staged another protest at the provincial mining ministry.

Dozens of students pressed the provincial environment ministry to put more pressure on the companies to deliver on their promised social initiatives, while also demanding legal action against the companies for environmental degradation.

At the time, head of the provincial environmental department Hary Andria responded, telling reporters that supervision and regulation of the companies are in the hands of the central government, and that local and provincial governments can only serve as liaison.

The protesters were promised that an inspector from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources will survey the PT SPC mining site along with provincial officials to assess the environmental degradation claims.

For the time being, Novaizal, of the provincial mining ministry, said that as long as the environmental impacts to the local area can be tolerated, the companies can continue to mine.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site in a series of articles on March 13, 2018 and March 16, 2018.

Banner image: Halimah scrubs laundry in the Sungumai River. Photo by Yitno Suprapto/Mongabay-Indonesia.

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