- A coal barge spilled 7,000 tonnes of the fossil fuel just off a beach in northern Sumatra on July 30.
- The coal was reportedly destined for a nearby cement plant run by a subsidiary of Swiss giant LafargeHolcim, but now blankets a popular beach.
- Local fishermen and activists say the coal has damaged coral and killed marine life, devastating the livelihoods of the community.
- Officials have called on the cement firm and barge operator to clean up the coal, while environmental experts are pushing for a lawsuit against the companies.
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Fishermen and environmental activists in Indonesia are demanding accountability after a barge spilled 7,000 tonnes of coal off the Sumatra coast, polluting beaches, damaging coral and impacting marine life.
The incident occurred on July 30, when the barge, reportedly carrying coal to a cement factory run by a local subsidiary of Swiss-based LafargeHolcim, was hit by high waves just 100 meters (330 feet) off Lampuuk Beach in Aceh Besar district, on the northern tip of Sumatra.
“The vessel spilled all of the coal it carried,” Kamaruddin, a local fisherman, told Mongabay Indonesia. Lampuuk Beach, on the Indian Ocean coast, was among the areas hit hardest by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
“The coal spill has damaged corals, affected the marine life, and even the beach has turned black as it’s covered in coal,” Kamaruddin said.
PT Lafarge Cement Indonesia, which runs a plant in Aceh Besar district, did not immediately respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment. It is unclear who the operator of the coal barge was.
Imran, the leader of a local community-based maritime watchdog, said his organization was in talks with representatives from the cement company to address the problem.
“Because the company failed to respond immediately, the coal has polluted the beach and damaged the coral. Lots of fish and crabs have died,” he said. “The coal must be cleaned away immediately so that this won’t get worse.”
The incident has also reportedly affected local tourism, with visitors avoiding the coal-strewn beach.
Mawardi Ali, the Aceh Besar district chief, has called on all parties in the case to take swift action to prevent the pollution from spreading to other coastal ecosystems.
“The environment has been polluted and it’s threatening the [wider] coastal ecosystem. This has badly affected the livelihoods of the fishermen and locals who depend on tourism,” he said.
Rahmi Fajri, secretary general of the Network Coalition for Aceh Maritime Advocacy, also demanded that the company take responsibility for cleaning up after the spill.
“The death of some of the marine life indicates that the beach is polluted. The coral is also damaged now, just as there’s a plan to establish this area as a conservation zone,” Rahmi said.
The spill mirrors an accident in 2016 when another of the cement company’s coal barges also dumped tonnes of coal onto a neighboring beach.
Muhammad Nur, executive director of the provincial chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said cases of coal-barge spills never went to trial for environmental pollution, and as such there was no deterrent effect. Under a 2009 law, such accidents constitute a clear violation of environmental management standards, for which perpetrators can face up to three years in jail and fines of up to 3 billion Indonesian rupiah ($207,000).
“We are calling all related agencies to immediately prepare a lawsuit against the company and the contractor,” Nur said. “The beach must be immediately cleaned by the company under the government’s monitoring, with the help of law enforcement and affected residents.
“There should be no excuse that this was a natural disaster so that the company and businesspeople can be freed of their responsibility,” he said.
Nur also reiterated Walhi’s longstanding calls for scaling back the use of coal in Indonesia. “If we still need it in large amounts, then shipping must be done with better standards in terms of technology and environmental safety, especially out at sea,” Nur said.
Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers of coal, but has paid a heavy price through the massive deforestation wrought to mine the fossil fuel, as well as the numerous environmental and safety incidents.
The video below shows Lampuuk Beach in Aceh blanketed in coal.
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