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Indonesian miners eyeing EV nickel boom seek to dump waste into the sea

A clownfish in the reefs of Komodo Island National Park, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Nickel-mining companies in Indonesia have pitched the government to allow them to dump their waste, or tailings, into the sea.
  • The country is the world’s biggest producer of nickel, one of the key elements in the rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and energy storage systems.
  • Indonesia already has a copper and gold mine that practices deep-sea tailings disposal, or DSTD, with devastating impacts on the local ecosystem, activists say.
  • Indonesia and neighboring Papua New Guinea are home to four of the 16 mines around the world that practice DSTD, but account for 91% of the estimated 227 million tons of tailings dumped into the ocean.

JAKARTA — As Indonesia ramps up its mining sector to feed the world’s hunger for zero-emission vehicles, it is faced with a problem: what to do with all the waste.

Now, companies building the nation’s first factories to produce the elements that power electric vehicles are seeking permission to dump billions of tons of potentially toxic waste into the waters of the Coral Triangle, home to the highest diversity of corals and reef fishes anywhere on the planet.

In January, two companies presented plans to use the method, known as deep-sea tailings disposal, or DSTD, to Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Maritime and Investment Affairs, according to presentation documents seen by Mongabay.

Neither company appears to have received permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which must approve the practice, though factories pitching to dump waste in the ocean are already under construction.

Environmental advocates and researchers worry that the quest to profit from the global clean-energy transition will come at a cost to marine life in the Coral Triangle, a region encompassing part of Indonesia and several other countries in the western Pacific.

Image by the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security, Public Domain.

Nickel mining, increasingly pushed to meet rising demand for batteries, has long been a core industry for Indonesia. Smelting for battery nickel produces large amounts of acidic waste full of heavy metals, and how to deal with the waste is one of the most important decisions in a smelting project.

Fewer than 20 nickel mines around the world dispose of their waste into the sea, but the proposals in Indonesia indicate that the projects would become some of the world’s biggest in terms of production and waste.

Companies often choose DSTD as a cost-efficient or safer option to manage tailings, the byproducts left over from extracting metals from ore. It’s an alternative to constructing a dam to store the tailings or spending money to treat the waste so it can be returned to the ground.

The practice, however, remains controversial if not only because research on it is scant. Scientists say that historically, data from environmental impact studies carried out before construction, monitoring during use, and post-mining rehabilitation have failed to uphold rigorous standards, if they are recorded at all.

“I don’t think we should be using the marine environment as a garbage dump,” said Amanda Reichelt-Brushett, a professor of environmental toxicology at Australia’s Southern Cross University, whose studies have shown that increased nickel ore in the ocean can damage coral in just four days.

Corals in Indonesia’s Komodo Island National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Indonesia, the world’s top producer of nickel, recently banned exports of the ore in a bid to encourage investment in processing plants at home, especially for the chemical compounds increasingly used in electric vehicle and renewable-energy storage batteries.

In two years, the country plans to add 30 new nickel smelters, a handful of them specifically designated to produce battery nickel. (Most of these smelters would produce nickel for use in the manufacture of stainless steel, and do not plan to use DSTD.)

In January, a week after the export ban went into effect, PT Trimegah Bangun Persada (TBP) and PT Hua Pioneer Indonesia (HPI) presented their plans for DSTD at the coordinating investment ministry’s office in Jakarta. Officials from the ministries of environment and fisheries were also in attendance.

TBP, an arm of the Indonesia’s Harita Group, is building a smelter on Obi Island, North Maluku province, where it operates a nickel mine.

HPI is set to manage the waste for four factories now under construction in Indonesia’s largest nickel industrial park, in Morowali, Central Sulawesi province. Those smelters are being built by Chinese-owned firms: Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, GEM Group, PT Fajar Metal Industry, and PT Teluk Metals Industry. The latter two are subsidiaries of Tsingshan Group, which runs the Morowali park.

None of the companies responded to requests for comment.

In its presentation to government officials, TBP laid out plans to dump 6 million tons of tailings into the ocean each year. HPI wants to dump 25 million tons per year, which would make it one of the biggest DSTD projects in the world.

At each project, a high-pressure acid leaching plant would extract thousands of tons of nickel and cobalt from the ore, leaving behind millions of tons of waste laden with toxic heavy metals such as arsenic.

Under the companies’ plans, a network of pipes would discharge the tailings at a depth of 150-250 meters (490-820 feet) below sea level, where they would then be presumed to sink to the sea floor at least a kilometer (3,300 ft) below the surface, according to presentation documents.

A parrotfish swims near the island of Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

A third company, PT Sulawesi Cahaya Mineral (SCM), which did not participate in the presentation, is also seeking approval for DSTD and has received permission from the governor of Central Sulawesi, according to the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), an Indonesian environmental NGO. It still needs approval from the environment ministry before it can carry out the practice. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

At the meeting, several scientists from Indonesian universities also presented analyses in favor of the practice, although some indicated there wasn’t enough data to conclude whether tailings in the ocean would be affected by upwelling, a process in which deep, cold water rises to the surface. Some scientists have warned that upwelling could make it harder to predict where the tailings will land.

Asked to review the presentations, physical oceanographer John Luick, who has researched DSTD around the world, wrote in an email to Mongabay that the information they contained “would give me no confidence, if I were, for example, the regulatory body responsible for issuing the permit.”

The presentations, for example, did not include salinity data, which is necessary to assess the risk of upwelling spreading the tailings uncontrollably.

“For all we know, the density gradient, which is what suppresses upwelling, could be nil,” Luick said. “I would place very little faith in the results from either of the hydrodynamic models [included in the presentations].”

Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, the director general of waste management at the environment ministry, said she wasn’t aware of any applications from companies to carry out DSTD. Sayed Muhadar, the ministry’s director of toxic waste management, said the same thing. The environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, did not respond to a request for comment.

On the same day of the presentation, the coordinating investment minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, announced the approval of environmental studies for the Morowali factories seeking permission to dump waste at sea. At the same time, he reportedly could not say whether the smelters had received permission for DSTD.

Atmadji Sumarkidjo, an aide to Luhut, did not respond to a request for comment.

Siti Nurbaya Bakar. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Both the mineral mining industry and the scientific community agree there is a lack of adequate information on the impacts of mine-waste disposal in the deep sea, according to the most recent report from the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), a U.N. agency.

Most of the known information about DSTD has historically been under the tight control of mining companies, according to the report.

“Indonesia holds the hotspot of biodiversity for coral reefs and reef fishes, so they have a responsibility, but we also have a responsibility to protect the systems,” said Reichelt-Brushett, the environmental toxicology professor. “We can’t just put it all on one country to protect something that’s globally significant.”

Merah Johansyah, the director of Jatam, said he was worried that roughly 10,000 fishing families could see their livelihoods impacted by the projects in Morowali and Obi Island.

“These projects will adversely affect the lives of coastal communities, especially small-scale fishers or traditional fishers whose lives are highly dependent on marine and fisheries resources in the local waters,” he told Mongabay.

A fisherman at sunset in Bunaken, Sulawesi, home to some of the world’s healthiest corals. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In one of the only studies ever done on the effects of DSTD, researchers in 2015 linked ongoing dumping to declining marine life at two mines in Papua New Guinea, which is also part of the Coral Triangle. The study concluded that the waters around one closed mine, on Misima Island, was experiencing continued effects of the mine three and a half years after closure, though they were not able to compare the data to a baseline study. At the open mine, on Lihir Island, impacts were felt as far as 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

At the Ramu nickel project in Papua New Guinea, similar to the ones under construction in Indonesia, a Chinese-owned smelter deposits 5 million tons of waste into the sea each year, a fraction of the waste planned in Indonesia. Last year, a coastal spill there turned oceans a crimson red. A research team found that mass fish deaths, concentrations of heavy metals, and never-before-seen arsenic bacteria “mud” resulted from inadequate waste management linked to its DSTD practice.

The presentations in Indonesia cited Ramu as an “environmentally sound” example of DSTD.

Indonesia’s Batu Hijau mine, currently the only mine in Indoensia that uses the ocean-dumping practice, was also used to buttress arguments for the practice.

Walhi, an Indonesian environmental NGO, says marine life declined along the coast of the Batu Hijau mine between 2006 and 2010. In 2011, the group tried in vain to persuade officials not to renew permits for the mine’s former owner, U.S.-based Newmont Corporation.

A satellite image of the Batu Hijau mine and tailings disposal site in Indonesia. Image by SkyTruth/Flickr.

In the companies’ presentations in Jakarta, DSTD was portrayed as preferable to the most common method of tailings management, storage behind a dam. Tailings dams were ruled out due to the difficulty in securing land, cost, and the potential for an earthquake to collapse the dam.

Structural problems resulted in a tailings dam collapse in Brazil last year, killing more than 250 people and prompting a review of industry standards around the world.

Reichelt-Brushett, however, notes that DSTD is not immune to seismic activity, which could crack pipes and leak waste.

There are other ways to deal with tailings, researchers say. One is to create a heavier “paste” from the waste, making it easier to control and prevent from contaminating wildlife or marine life, whether dealt with on land or in the ocean. In studying mine waste in China, a group of researchers last year wrote that paste technology is a “research hotspot” but due to the “harsh implementation environment” of the mining industry, there is still a “long way to go” in research.

Those strategies can be combined with another strategy, according to Ellen Moore, international mining coordinator at Earthworks, a D.C.-based environmental research and advocacy group.

“Viable, affordable alternatives are proven and broadly employed across the mining industry,” she said. “The best available technology given the geology and hydrology of the region would be putting tailings back into the pits and tunnels the ore came from.”

The breaking of the Fundão tailings dam in Brazil in 2015 created a flash flood of toxic mud that killed 19 people and destroyed this bridge. Mining executives were charged with qualified homicide. Image by Vinicius Mendonça/IBAMA.

As of 2015, there were 16 mines around the world that practiced DSTD. Seven were in Norway, three in PNG, and one each in Chile, the U.K., France, Greece, Turkey and Indonesia. Just the four mines in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea contribute 91% of an estimated 227 million tons of tailings dumped into the ocean, according to Earthworks, although that figure includes river dumping.

“Submarine tailings disposal,” Moore said, using an alternative name for the practice, “is a harmful, outdated practice that decimates marine life and destroys the livelihoods of fishing-dependent communities.”

Each DSTD project is highly dependent upon the local conditions of hydrodynamics, waste composition and even underwater geography, says Renee Grogan, co-chair of the DSTD working group at the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI).

DOSI aims to promote best practices in DSTD projects rather than contest its use. It has been working with other groups to create an internationally accepted guideline to monitor and enforce rigorous scientific environmental impact assessments before dumping begins. GESAMP, the U.N.-sponsored group, plans to release a report with guidance on regulations and available knowledge this year.

Among the components of a suggested guideline, while not established yet, would be robust impact assessments, monitoring, and rehabilitation measures that monitor the seabed to ensure marine environments can be returned to their unadulterated state.

“The most important thing is to have a very cautious, conservative view of impact assessments,” Grogan said. “It’s definitely a case-by-case basis, and I think that’s part of the problem.”

After finding an accepted guideline, the biggest challenge is to enforce it. One method, Grogan says, is persuading financing bodies like the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to refuse projects if they don’t uphold clean, standard practices of DSTD.

Others, however, oppose the use of DSTD altogether.

“Building new mines that would dump waste into the sea is a step backwards. We should be focused on reducing demand through improved recycling and greater efficiency,” Moore said.

Banner: A clownfish in the reefs of Komodo Island National Park, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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