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In Sumatra, villagers blame a coal mine for cracks in their houses, and their community

This coal-filled stockpile ditch flows into the filtration pool and into the Indung River. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay-Indonesia

  • Residents of Padang Birau village in Indonesia’s Jambi province say a nearby coal mine has led to social and environmental problems, and is disrupting their lives.
  • Villagers say their houses have been damaged and their sleep interrupted since a mine road began operation, requiring frequent maintenance from a vibrating roller. They also point to air and water pollution from coal dust.
  • Other area residents support the mine, particularly people who work as delivery drivers for the mining company.

PADANG BIRAU, Indonesia: It’s been more than two months since Rasid has felt safe sleeping in his bedroom. Ever since a crack appeared in the wall, he’s slept in his living room.

“I’m horrified of being in the room, I’m afraid it might collapse,” he says.

Four fractures mark the walls of his house, two of them running from top to bottom.

Rasid points to what he believes is the culprit: the vibratory roller that compacts the dirt road next to the house, often late into the night.

The roller is operated by PT Caritas Energi Indonesia (CEI) and PT Metalic Baru Sinergi (MBS), mining contractors for PT Karya Bumi Baratama (KBB), which since 1999 has held a 102-square-kilometer (39-square-mile) concession here in the Sarolangun district of Jambi province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

In late 2017, the company bought locals’ land to build a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) road connecting the mining site to a nearby highway. It also set up a coal stockpile about 500 meters, about a third of a mile, from a residential area.

Since the mine road opened, Rasid says he and his family have had trouble sleeping. The roller goes into action after each rain, leveling out the deep ruts left by the regular traffic of trucks carrying tons of coal. When the machine rumbles by, Rasid says, the zinc roof of his house clangs along with the vibrations. “When it’s at work, it feels like it’s tearing up the floor tiles,” Rasid says.

Sukirno, showing cracks in Zulhitmi’s house. Local residents suspect the cracks are caused by vibrations of heavy equipment. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay-Indonesia.

The work starts after sunset and sometimes goes on past midnight. “It sometimes rolls on in the afternoons too, but at night the pounding is extreme — the vibration is stronger. Especially if you have a toothache and that heavy equipment is at work, it makes you want to punch a wall,” he says. “We wait for it to stop, sometimes until 4 in the morning, then we can sleep.”

Rasid says company representatives have visited his house three times to see the cracking of the walls. However, to date, the company has not discussed any compensation.

“I built this house over five years, saving up little by little as a motorcycle taxi driver, but now this happens,” he says quietly.

Musyawamah is one of the residents who sold their land for the road. He and his brother received 336 million rupiah ($23,300) for an 800-square-meter plot, about a fifth of an acre, that they inherited from their parents. But with the new road built so close to his own house, Musyawamah has also started noticing cracks appear on his walls. Like Rasid, he also blames the contractors’ roller. His brother, Roni Paslah, has also seen cracks in his house’s foundation.

In the small community of Padang Birau, at least four homes have seen physical damage. All are located within 50 meters (165 feet) of the mine road.

Zulhitmi, one of the affected villagers, has asked the coal company to review the work schedule for the roller, especially during Friday afternoon prayers, and to turn off the vibrating function at night.

“In the daytime, if you want to amp it up 100 times, go ahead,” he says jokingly.

That the roller is the cause of the wall fractures “can’t be denied,” he says. “The road-building system is not in accordance with government standards. They heap up [the dirt] then flatten it, and still the road isn’t compact enough, especially for vehicles carrying 14, 16 or 40 tons. So of course they need constant maintenance.”

Zulhitmi has met with representatives from MBS and CEI. He says the companies reasoned that since they had only been for operating for two months at the time, there was an understandable need for improvement. Zulhitmi says he asked them to think long term.

“I told them … ‘You’ve prepared medical funds, so that means you’re expecting us to get sick. Don’t sacrifice the residents [at the expense of] the company — that’s wrong,’” he says, his voice rising. “Think long term, about how the company can run without people becoming ill and dying.”

Despite supposedly undergoing filter treatments, the water in this third stockpile pool remains black. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay Indonesia.

River and air pollution

On March 9, the Indung River overflowed after a heavy rain. Black water inundated the yards in the village.

Wawan Susanto, a resident, suspects the water mixed with coal dissolved by the rain. He fears this coal mix could pollute wells and groundwater sources near the river.

Mongabay visited the location of a stockpile at the top of the Indung River. Heaps of coal extended dozens of meters. At the edge was a trench full of coal, emptying into a filtration pond. There were three of these filtration pools, filled with the same black water, flowing out into the Indung.

Suhardi Sohan, a manager at the Sarolangun district environment department, says he has already checked the stockpile filtration pools. He says the black water is caused by a lack of aluminum hydroxide and lime treatments.

“The results of laboratory tests meet the standards, but the murkiness is still a problem,” he says.

Treating the coal-water slurry, as the black sludge is known, is important not just for clearing up the water but also for achieving a neutral pH. “Too much aluminum hydroxide, and it becomes alkaline. Too much lime, and it becomes acidic,” Suhardi says.

Beyond the murky water, there’s also the issue of air pollution. Siswoyo lives at the intersection of the mine road and the highway. Every day, dozens of trucks loaded with coal pass in front of his house. The cargo is covered with tarpaulins, but this does little to stop coal dust from polluting the surrounding air.

Siswoyo’s daughter, Rini, has a history of asthma, and in the last few months has developed more frequent coughs and shortness of breath because of the coal dust, he says.

“At night, she has difficulty breathing,” he says of the 7-year-old. “It’s not possible to wear a mask every day. Why is it so hard to simply breathe?”

Coal transport trucks enter CEI’s mine road. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay Indonesia.

Conflict between residents

The presence of the coal mine has also caused social unrest, pitting those who support the mine against those who oppose it. Some residents, including the Gunung Kembang Village Cooperative, have contracts to transport coal from the mine.

“Ever since the coal [mining began], people here want to kill each other, stab each other, because of the money,” Wawan says.

The residents who support the company are those who live farther away, he adds. “They don’t get dust, don’t get the tremors, don’t get the noise. Of course they wouldn’t go against the company, since they profit.”

When the company at one point agreed not to haul coal during the day, the local contract holders protested. Wawan says some of them came to his house and challenged him to a fight. “If you shut down the mining activities, we will be ready to protect the company,” Wawan recalls them saying.

Siswoyo, showing the residents’ letter of demands for the company. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay-Indonesia.

Finding solutions

In a bid to address all these issues, the community and the mining company have met more than five times, at discussions mediated by local officials. However, no concrete resolutions have been made.

On March 28, Muhammad Idrus, the local subdistrict chief, facilitated a meeting between residents and company representatives. At the meeting, Zulhitmi said the residents’ complaints should be addressed before any of them succumbed to the litany of problems. Failing that, he called for the company to cease operations.

“We are sad, sir, our rest at night is disturbed by the heavy equipment. The solution isn’t money or [health] insurance, but our rest,” Zulhitmi told the subdistrict chief.

The residents proposed several action points to the company, including health insurance to cover sickness resulting from the coal pollution, and property insurance to protect buildings and farmland from damage.

They also requested that the residents most directly impacted by the mine’s operations be given jobs with the company. Wawan says he feels the company has not been transparent about local recruitment. He says announcements about job vacancies aren’t circulated to residents around the mine, and that the company mostly employs people from more distant villages.

The residents previously made the same requests in a letter to the companies in December 2017 that was also forwarded to the district chief, the provincial department of mines, and district officials.

A stockpile filled with coal. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay-Indonesia.

Wawan says there needs to be a written agreement between the residents and the companies, so that the rights of the former are legally protected.

“We want to be able to reasonably demand [compensation] from the companies. [If] our house is damaged, we can ask for it to be fixed,” he says.

Census, a manager at MBS, one of the contractors building the mine road, puts the problems between residents and the companies down to misunderstanding and miscommunication. He says good-faith discussions between the two parties can resolve the issue. Aris Winarso, a project manager at CEI, the other road contractor, says the residents’ demands have already been included in a memorandum of understanding signed by village officials. Under that agreement, the mining company would be held responsible for any environmental impacts affecting human health around the mine, as well as physical damage to homes.

On the point of hiring from within the community, he says 12 local residents have been recruited to the mine’s security force.

Idrus, the subdistrict chief, has called on the companies to revisit the operating schedules for the vibratory roller and coal trucks. He asked them to be more transparent about job openings, and to promptly address the damage to residents’ homes. He also warned against vigilante acts by either side in the dispute.

The two sides have attempted to negotiate since September 2017, but have failed to reach an agreement.

“In the past, the communication was there … and we were close to reaching a point of agreement,” Wawan says. “But what we talked about just disappeared, swallowed by the earth. Why it became stagnant, we don’t know.”

The water of the Indung River turned murky after heavy rain as the water mixed with coal. Image by Wawan / Mongabay-Indonesia.

On April 19, representatives of the residents whose homes were damaged met with officials from KBB, the mining company, in a two-hour discussion. But once again there were no concrete actions agreed on.

Wawan, who attended the meeting, says the company already has an agreement with three residents’ groups allowing the latter to collect tolls for each coal truck passing through their area. The tolls amount to 30,000 rupiah (about $2.15) for large trucks and 15,000 rupiah for smaller trucks.

Wawan says he doesn’t know who manages the money from that system, which was implemented two months earlier. “Obviously these funds never reached us. If they did, we would know the amount.”

On the issue of health insurance, the company representatives said they needed to check with their head office to see if there were enough funds. As for the damage to the homes, KBB official Bobi Manurung says he doesn’t believe they were caused purely by activities relating to the mine. He says the claims are exaggerated, and promised to request a technical assessment from the district departments of public housing and the environment.

“If it can be proven by the technical team, the company is ready to compensate according to existing regulations,” he says.

As of the time of this report, however, no requests from the company have been made for the establishment of a team to look into the claims, according to Deshendri, the head of the district environmental department.

“Although I’m aware of the problems, as long as they don’t report them then we consider it safe,” he said.

Hillalatil Badri, the deputy district chief, says he supports increased investment in the area. “But investors can’t just break the rules as they please. They have to follow all the rules,” he says, adding he will take action against companies found violating any regulations. “If there is evidence, we also have the power to shut down [the company] even if their permit is issued by the provincial government,” he says.

In the case of mining companies, their operating permits can be frozen if their activities result in damage to the environment, Hillalatil says. “But we can’t just do it on a whim, shutting them down whenever they make a mistake. There’s a process that we must follow.”

For now, the residents of Padang Birau await some kind of outcome after months of futile discussions and mediation. It remains unclear how long Rini can continue to suffer from her chronic asthma exacerbated by breathing in coal dust. Nor do Rasid and his neighbors know how much longer they have to endure the wall-cracking tremors of the roller at night. The fate of the river, too, is uncertain.

Siswoyo, Rini’s father, appears to have given up, not knowing where else to turn.

“Maybe we poor people no longer have the right to live,” he says.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on May 3, 2018.

Banner image: A coal-filled stockpile ditch flows into the filtration pool and into the Indung River. Image by Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay-Indonesia

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