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Coal spill bedevils Indonesian beach more than a year later

  • Coal from a barge that spilled onto a beach in Indonesia’s Aceh province in July 2018 still hasn’t been fully cleaned up.
  • Lampuuk Beach, on the northern tip of Sumatra, is hosting a surfing championship this weekend, but participants and residents say that coal continues to litter and contaminate the site.
  • The coal was destined for a power plant run by a cement producer, which had experienced an identical spill in 2016 at a nearby beach.
  • While authorities have ordered the cement producer to clean up the site, the company says the barge operator should be held responsible.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Nearly a year and a half ago, a barge hit by high waves spilled an estimated 7,000 tonnes coal on a beach in Sumatra popular with surfers. This weekend, as the beach hosts a surfing contest, it still hasn’t been fully cleaned up.

“We surfers have called on every stakeholder to deal seriously with this coal spill,” Zaki Mulia, a member of the local Lhoknga Surf Team, told Mongabay Indonesia. “Some of the coal was indeed removed, but not all of it.”

The coal came from the barge TB Marina, which on July 30, 2018, was buffeted by strong waves just 100 meters (330 feet) off Lampuuk Beach in Aceh province. Much of the cargo, destined for a coal-fired power plant at a factory operated by a local subsidiary of cement giant LafargeHolcim, was spilled. Since then, say surfers and residents, the provincial government has failed to adequately clean up the beach, which hosts this year’s Aceh Surfing Championship from Nov. 23-24.

Coal on Lampuuk Beach in Aceh Besar district, Aceh province, after the July 30, 2018, spill. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

According to Zaki, the Aceh government had ordered PT Solusi Bangun Andalas (SBA) to clean up the coal spill, but the company reportedly refused to do so and instead argued that the barge operator should bear responsibility for the cleanup.

Abdul Muchti, a councilor in Aceh Besar district, where both the beach and the cement factory are located, said neither the plant’s current operator, PT SBA, nor the barge operator had publicly stated how much coal was spilled in the incident, making it difficult to assess the scale of the pollution.

“Many people depend on this [beach] for their livelihoods,” Abdul said.

An online video clip shot recently by a resident showed black particles, believed to be coal, found inside a dead pufferfish washed up on Lampuuk Beach.

“The government must push the company to find solutions for the damage to the marine ecosystem — not just removing coal from sea to land,” said Muhammad Yulfan, who shot the video.

A recently made video shows black particles, believed to be coal, inside a dead pufferfish. Image by Muhammad Yulfan.
A dead pufferfish on a carpet of coal on Lampuuk Beach. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

The 2018 spill mirrors an accident in 2016 when another of the cement company’s coal barges also dumped tonnes of coal onto a neighboring beach. As with the later incident, there was no accountability for the 2016 spill, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

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 rupiah ($213,000).

In an announcement on Nov. 14, PT SBA said it would carry out a second cleanup at the beach. The company has been a government-controlled entity since February, after a divestment by PT Lafarge Cement Indonesia, the local unit of Swiss-based LafargeHolcim.

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 associated with it.

Coal from the July 2018 spill on the beach. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Nov. 11, 2019.

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