Indonesia Faces Environmental Time Bomb After Coal Bust

Fergus Jensen Jakarta Globe 29 Jun 16;

Samarinda. Thousands of mines are closing in Indonesia's tropical coal belt as prices languish and seams run dry. But almost none of the companies have paid their share of billions of dollars owed to repair the badly scarred landscape they have left behind.

Abandoned mine pits dot the bare, treeless hillsides in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan province on Indonesia's part of Borneo island. It is ground zero for a coal boom that made Indonesia the world's biggest exporter of the mineral that fuels power plants. Abandoned mining pits have now become death traps for children who swim in them, and their acidic water is killing nearby rice paddies.

Indonesia has tried, mostly in vain, to get mining companies to keep their promises to clean up the ravaged landscape. But it doesn't even have basic data on who holds the many thousands of mining licenses that were handed out during the boom days, officials say.

"Nobody was in control," said Dian Patria, who works on natural resources at the country's Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Patria estimated that 90 percent of the more than 10,000 mining license holders had not paid the reclamation funds they owe by law. One-third are for coal.

Even if they wanted to, many companies now lack the cash. The same large banks that lent billions during the boom have now pulled out of coal, wary of the sector's commercial outlook and contribution to climate change.

The problem is not unique to Indonesia. As mineral prices languish, even major global miners are trying to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in increasingly hefty closure costs, mostly by selling off pits.

Few question asked

After pro-democracy protesters swept Indonesia's authoritarian president Suharto from power in 1998, the Jakarta government gave towns and districts control of natural resources as part of far-reaching decentralization reforms aimed at preventing the archipelago from fracturing.

Newly empowered local leaders handed out thousands of mining licenses, many of them to small operators, as coal prices leapt from around $40 per tonne in 2005 to nearly $200 at their peak in 2008. In East Kalimantan alone, around half the province was covered in coal mining permits.

Under President Joko Widodo, elected in 2014, Indonesia has promised to turn around its dismal environmental record. The administration has also wrested control over natural resources away from local leaders, giving it to provincial governors instead.

Awang Faroek Ishak, East Kalimantan's governor, has issued a moratorium on new licenses. He is threatening to punish mining companies that have failed to restore the land, he said in an interview. But the data on mining companies and funds for rehabilitation are missing, he said.

"How can we look into this if we don't have the documents," he complained.

Greenpeace activist Kiki Taufik says governors do, however, have the authority to freeze permits and operations while they investigate. "The governors have authority, but they never use this authority."

Patchy oversight

Most of the mining licenses went to small firms, many of which have gone bankrupt or simply abandoned their operations, mining industry officials say.

"For now, it's really difficult not to lose money," said Budi Situmorang, a mining engineer at small coal miner CV Arjuna. "All we can really do is hold on. Looking at the 56 mines in Samarinda, no more than 10 are still active."

The mining companies themselves are supposed to restore the land from money they paid into accounts held at state banks and supervised by local officials.

"That's what you're supposed to do, but in practice very few people do it," except for the major mining firms, the head of Indonesia's Coal Mining Association, Pandu Sjahrir, told Reuters.

The central government has had a list since 2011 of nearly 4,000 licenses that have failed to meet their requirements. It expects to be able to revoke the problematic permits only by January 2017.

Patria's team at the anti-corruption agency is pushing for the national government's Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) to investigate miners - including over unpaid rehabilitation funds estimated in the hundreds of millions.

Even that is only a fraction of the cash that would actually be required, says Merah Johansyah from the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM).

Pressure from campaigners is increasing as mine closures reach a peak by 2020, according to some industry estimates. One set of 2,272 coal permits and contracts, compiled by mining consultancy SMGC and reviewed by Reuters, showed the average expiry date of the permit is October 2017.

Mining without permits

But environmental watchdogs say an end to permits does not mean an end to mining. "In East Kalimantan, even where permits have long been revoked, they're still operating," Syahrul Fitra, a legal researcher at the environmental NGO Auriga told Reuters. "What we found in the field is that no punishments have been applied."

In areas where companies are conducting reclamation activities, it is usually not to replant forests—most mining concessions are being turned into housing developments, agricultural land or other uses, environmentalists and industry officials say.

In the meantime, the run-off water and mud from abandoned pits, numbering around 150 in Samarinda alone, are polluting surrounding rice paddies and rivers.

After his employer closed a small mine in Samarinda, Suyadi, who like many Indonesians uses one name, went back to working the small rice paddy on his family's farm on the edge of the city. The mines, however, have followed him there.

"Like it or not, the tailing flow here," says Suyadi, referring to the stream of chemically treated mining debris that is left after coal is extracted.

"If they continue to leave it like this, where else will that water flow? To the lower areas where there are rice paddies," Suyadi said.

The attractive aqua hue of the water in the abandoned pits conceals a darker story: 24 local children using them as swimming holes have drowned around Samarinda over the past five years.

Govt prepares lawsuits against coal mining firms
Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 30 Jun 16;

The government is seeking to sue more companies blamed for 25 deaths at depleted coal mine pits in East Kalimantan that took place between 2011 and 2016 after years of protracted inaction.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry is currently collecting data and information regarding the deaths in order to build legal cases against the mining companies.

“We will enforce criminal law [on these companies],” the ministry’s law enforcement director-general Rasio Ridho Sani told The Jakarta Post.

So far, the East Kalimantan Police have named suspects in six cases involving deaths. Two cases occurred in Kutai Kartanegara and four in Samarinda.

The police, however, have declined to disclose which companies are responsible for those cases, saying that “those responsible will flee” if their names are revealed to the media.

Besides enforcing the law, the government has also taken some steps so that the depleted coal mine pits do not claim more lives in the future.

“We have taken some steps since the end of 2014,” Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told the Post.

Those steps include ordering two coal companies to halt their operations so that they could close down the pits, according to Rasio.

East Kalimantan Governor Awang Faroek Ishak has also stopped the operations of 11 companies, he added.

“Furthermore, the Environment and Forestry Ministry, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, the Presidential Staff Office, the Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK] and the East Kalimantan provincial government have met with 111 mining companies to ensure that they uphold good mining practices to prevent further casualties and environmental devastation,” Rasio said.

Last month, the Presidential Staff Office also promised to coordinate with the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry and the Environment and Forestry Ministry to handle the cases in the near future.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and the Indonesian Child Protection Commission (KPAI) have decried the government’s protracted inaction in dealing with the deaths, saying that the government had neglected its foremost obligation to monitor mining activities in three regions in the province, including Kutai Kartanegara, North Penajam Paser and Samarinda.

“We have found that the government turned a blind eye toward coal mining companies that did not conduct reclamation after mining activities that led to 25 deaths between 2011 and 2015,” KPAI chairman Asrorun Niam Sholeh said in a letter to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

He added that so far only one case had been brought to trial from the 25 deaths. He said further that the verdict in the trial was too lenient as the prosecutors only demanded two months of jail time.

“This thing really harmed justice because it did not affect the owner and decision makers in the company,” Asrorun said.

Komnas HAM commissioner Roichatul Aswidah said, meanwhile, that both the central government and local administrations had failed to uphold the obligation of companies to restore unused sites after 30 days without any mining activities, as stipulated in a 2010 governmental decree on reclamation and post-mining activity.

The 2010 governmental decree stipulates that a mining company is obliged to pay some amount of money to the government as a guarantee that they will restore their unused mining sites in the future.

“The government is obliged to monitor their activities. As the party responsible for granting mining permits to companies, the government could revoke those permits if they are found to have disregarded their obligations as stipulated by law,” Roichatul said.

According to data from Network for Mining Advocacy (Jatam) made available to the Post, death cases took place in unrestored mining sites owned by 17 private companies.

Three of these companies gained their mining permits from the central government, one obtained its permit from the provincial administration and the rest gained their permits from either the Samarinda Municipality or the Kutai Kartanegara and North Penajam Paser Regency.

Another Komnas HAM commissioner, Siti Noor Laila, said recalcitrant companies had violated a number of human rights, ranging from the right to life and the right to safety to the rights of children.