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Uncovered coal barges are polluting North Sumatra’s waters

A container for coal after it has been unloaded from the barges. Image by Ayat S Karokaro / Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Coal is brought by ship to fuel a power plant in the Pangkalan Susu area of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province.
  • Mongabay observed ships waiting for days to be unloaded, moored in the Malacca Strait with piles of coal exposed to the open air.
  • The strait ecosystem, including the fish and shrimp that local communities rely on for their sustenance and livelihood, is threatened by exposure to toxins from both the coal and ash settling in the water.
  • The local community and fishermen have reported decreased catches and failed fish farm harvests, and attributed these to the operation of the Pangkalan Susu power plant.

Off the coast of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, the Malacca Strait was once home to dolphins. In their place, there are now barges filled with coal, brought by sea to fuel power plants in Pangkalan Susu, a subdistrict of Langkat, North Sumatra.

According to Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, a local NGO, the Pangkalan Susu power plant’s four units require some 10,000 to 15,000 tons of coal per day.

As ships wait to unload their cargo, these vast quantities of coal sit uncovered, sometimes for days on end, exposed to wind and rain. According to local fishers and NGOs like Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, this practice has devastating effects on the marine ecosystem and on human health and livelihoods.

King Coal

In 2018, coal accounted for nearly 60 percent of Indonesia’s energy mix. With one of the world’s fasting-growing energy consumption rates, and vast coal reserves, Indonesia has traditionally favored the cheap but highly polluting energy source.

According to Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the administration of President Joko Widodo recently expressed a desire to “start reducing the use of coal” and “develop the energy sector with a focus on renewable energy.”

But coal isn’t going away. Under the national energy policy, coal will retain the lion’s share of the energy mix, 55 percent, through 2025, before being reduced to 47 percent by 2038.

Indonesia’s coal dependence has come under fire, as the country is among the world’s top five greenhouse gas emitters. The industry is also causing strife for the communities living near all points of the supply chain, from mining areas to power plants.

The water around uncovered coal barges destined for the Pangkalan Susu power plant has turned black. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Dangerous cargo

Fhiliya Himasari Sinulingga, the North Sumatra program manager for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), says her organization’s research indicates that seven coal companies supply more than 2 million tons of coal per year to Pangkalan Susu.

Although Walhi hasn’t been able to obtain official records, research and field observations indicate that the companies that supply the first and second units are a consortium of PT Energi Batubara Lestari and PT Batara Batari Sinergi Nusantara consortium; and the PT Hanson Energi consortium, consisting of PT Hanson Energi Baturaja, PT Corby Putra Utama and PT Ogan Energi. Meanwhile, PT Bukit Sumut and PT Arutmin Indonesia are thought to supply the third and fourth units.

The adverse health effects of coal power plants have been well documented, including cancer and other lung diseases linked to breathing in particles and toxins emitted from the burning of coal. Based on data from Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, many people living around the power plant have reported respiratory issues. But the coal is also threatening local communities in other ways.

With many residents making their income from fishing and fish farming, coal has been a significant threat to their livelihoods.

Mongabay observed coal-transport ships waiting for days for their turn to be unloaded, with their cargo exposed to the air.

When it rains, the coal-tainted runoff from open barges spills into the surrounding seawater. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Syarifah Ainun, an analyst from the Sumatra Chemical Engineering Forum, says that coal, which contains the radioactive elements of uranium and thorium, could contaminate the surrounding waters, particularly during rains.

Leaving coal sitting exposed to the elements can result in acid rain and runoff, with the resulting liquid both acidic and sulfuric, containing hydrogen chloride and carbon dioxide as well as other chemical compounds found in the coal, Syarifah says. “When all of these interact, it yields new reactions that are toxic. Exposure could cause death to marine flora and fauna,” she says. “The government is only considering the cheap price of coal and dismissing the harmful effects for living things exposed to it.”

Tazuddin, a Pangkalan Susu fisherman, says that coal and its byproducts have contributed to a reduction in his catch.

He says that before the power plant started operating, he could catch up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of fish, worth about 150,000 to 200,000 rupiah ($10 to $15), each time he went out to sea. After the power plant began operating, he says, he has only been able to catch about $2.50 worth of fish at a time.

“We have difficulty finding fish and shrimp at sea. Even just to get 2 or 3 kilograms is very difficult. Us small fishermen have really felt this impact,” Tazuddin says.

Ilham, the owner of a fish and shrimp farm, says he recently experienced failed harvests, and blames the coal ash falling onto the farm for killing the shrimp larvae.

He estimates that at least 50,000 shrimp larvae have died due to coal ash, and says he has lost his entire capital of 10 million rupiah ($700).

A newly unloaded coal barge. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

“Ever since the coal plants existed, we have had five failed harvests. Many of the larvae we grow died. We have protested to the company but have been ignored.”

Some fishermen also complain about polluted air, and say they can no longer use rainwater as a source of fresh water, as it, too, has been contaminated.

In June 2019, about a hundred fishermen and dozens of activists staged a protest on boats near the Pangkalan Susu power plant, demanding its closure.

“We ask the government to re-evaluate the use of coal because there are more harms than good. Coal is destructive. We support the government in supplying electricity demands but not with coal,” Tazuddin said.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Aug. 21, 2019.

Banner image of a newly unloaded coal barge, by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

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