Indonesian seaweed farmers launch class action over Montara oil spill

Jewel Topsfield Sydney Morning Herald 2 Aug 16;

Jakarta: More than 13,000 Indonesian seaweed farmers will on Wednesday launch a class action in the Federal Court in Sydney against the company responsible for the worst oil spill in the history of Australia's offshore petroleum industry.

Maurice Blackburn Lawyers is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for the loss of income it says the farmers suffered when their seaweed plots died after the 2009 Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea.

"Our investigations show that the operator of the oil rig has a serious case to answer for cutting corners that endangered lives, the environment and the livelihoods of thousands of seaweed farmers," said Maurice Blackburn managing principal Ben Slade.

He said the seaweed farmers, who are from East Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia's poorest and most remote provinces, suffered "north of $200 million" in loss of income.

Indonesia is one of the world's top producers of seaweed, which is used in food, cosmetics, medicine and fertiliser.

The company that operated the Montara oil rig - PTTEP Australasia - has denied liability.

"PTTEP Australasia maintains its position, based on extensive independent scientific research overseen by the Australian government, that no oil from Montara reached the shores of Indonesia or Australia and that no long-term damage was done to the Timor Sea environment," a company spokesman said.

An estimated 300,000 litres of oil a day spewed into the ocean for more than 10 weeks after an explosion at the oil rig, 250 kilometres south-east of Rote Island, on August 21, 2009.

"In the second half of September in 2009, all the seaweed farmers in Oenggaut (a village in Rote) lost their seaweed crops after the surface of the water changed; it went from the normal blue colour and had all the colours of the rainbow," 58-year-old seaweed farmer Daniel Aristabulus Sanda said in a statutory declaration.

"The seaweed that I was growing was totally destroyed, it broke up and washed away. I saw dead fish, in uncountable numbers, sometimes more than 100 in one place."

Mr Sanda said that after the oil killed his crop he tried to plant new seeds but they all died.

"I felt desperate at this time; I was sad and disappointed that my seaweed would not grow and I could not provide for my family."

Mr Sanda's yield shrunk from 14,000 dry kilograms of seaweed in 2008, the year before the oil spill, to just 500 in 2010.

It was not until 2013 that his crops improved.

He said the "difficult years" made things very hard for his family because he was paying to put his two children through university.

"If the company thought that this issue would go away because the farmers are Indonesians, or because they didn't understand their legal rights, they were sorely mistaken," Mr Slade said.

The class action will be bankrolled by Harbour Litigation Funding Limited, one of the largest litigation funders in the world, in return for a share of the proceeds if the case is successful.

"Although we invest in a wide range of commercial litigation, it is particularly rewarding that our financial support helps those whom otherwise may not get access to justice," said Ruth Stackpool-Moore, the head of Harbour's Asia-Pacific hub.

A report last year by the Australian Lawyers Alliance, "After the Spill", called for a full independent investigation, saying evidence pointed to a larger environmental and social disaster than has ever been officially acknowledged.

The class action is a victory for West Timor Care Foundation president Ferdi Tanoni, who has spent years fruitlessly lobbying the Australian government and PTTEP Australasia to fund an environmental assessment on the impact on the East Nusa Tenggara community.

"Six years, 11 months and 10 days … it's a long fight," he said.

"I believe soon we will be able to bring justice to the people of East Nusa Tenggara and West Timor who suffered."

Montara oil spill has damaged livelihoods, ecosystem: Foundation
Djemi Amnifu The Jakarta Post 4 Aug 16;

The head of the concern for the West Timor Foundation’s (YPTB) advocacy team, Ferdi Tanoni, says oil leaking from PTTEP Australasia’s Montara oil rig in the Timor Sea in 2009 had a devastating effect on the livelihood of fishermen and coastal communities in East Nusa Tenggara, with fish catches and seaweed harvests continuing to decline in the heavily polluted waters.

The oil spill also affected sea life, with disrupted food chains causing changes to marine ecosystems, he went on.

Citing data from the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry and the East Nusa Tenggara provincial administration, among others, Ferdi said the oil leak had caused environmental damage to 70,541.76 square kilometers of area.

“The advocacy team has received satellite imagery data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] that shows an oil spill on 28,662.1 square kilometers of area. Spread by waves and wind, the polluted areas have continuously widened,” he told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Representing 13,000 East Nusa Tenggara fishermen and seaweed farmers affected by the Montara oil spill, Ferdi and Daniel Sanda, a seaweed farmer from Rote Island, filed a class action lawsuit against PTTEP Australasia with the Federal Court of Australia on Wednesday.

Greg Phelps of WardKeller, the biggest law office in Northern Australia, and Ben Slade from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, a reputable Australian law office established in 1919, are two Australian lawyers ready to support the class action lawsuit.

Ferdi said such support showed that affected seaweed farmers in East Nusa Tenggara, such as Daniel, did not stand alone, adding that their voices were heard and they had allies ready to help them fight for their rights. (ebf)

Montara oil spill brought suffering to E. Nusa Tenggara: Farmer
Djemi Amnifu The Jakarta Post 4 Aug 16;

Daniel Sanda, a seaweed farmer from East Nusa Tenggara, could not hide his happiness about the fact that the case of the Montara rig oil spill in the Timor Sea would finally be brought to court.

Daniel said he and all seaweed farmers in the province had experienced losses and suffering after their seaweed plots had been ruined following the oil spill in 2009. They could no longer afford school tuition fees for their children, among other things.

Representing 13,000 East Nusa Tenggara seaweed farmers affected by the Montara oil spill, Daniel and Ferdi Tanoni, heading the Care for West Timor Foundation (YPTB)’s advocacy team, filed a class action lawsuit against PTTEP Australasia as the owner of the oil rig over its alleged failure to take responsibility for the incident.

Ferdi said that holding an advocacy mandate from the local people and administrations in the province, he felt relieved that the Montara oil leak case would be brought to court. He was satisfied that the local people affected by the incident could finally file a lawsuit against PTTEP Australasia with the Federal Court of Australia.

“Today, their voices have arrived on the Australian court’s desk. For around seven years, I’ve been working with them and striving to fight for their rights and justice over what they have suffered. And through hard work, I met with Greg Phelps, who then met with people from the Maurice Blackburn Lawyers office and Harbour Litigation Funder that has agreed to fund this case,” said Ferdi in a press conference after the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney accepted the class action lawsuit, on Wednesday. He said the Indonesian government fully supported the case. (ebf)

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