From: Kelly Yamanouchi, The Denver Post
Published December 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Villagers Drop Suit Against Denver-Based Mining Firm

Dec. 29--Indonesian villagers agreed to drop a $543 million lawsuit against PT Newmont Minahasa Raya, a subsidiary of Denver's Newmont Mining Corp., after alleging that mercury waste from the company's Minahasa gold mine polluted Buyat Bay and sickened residents.

Newmont said there was no cash settlement involved in the agreement but that the plaintiffs acknowledged as part of the settlement that their claims were baseless in light of a World Health Organization study.

"We have always maintained that Newmont has not polluted Buyat Bay and that this will become evident when emotions settle down and facts begin to emerge," said Mochamad Kasmali, Newmont's legal adviser.

"We are confident that any further fair and open airing of the facts will make it clearer that Newmont has adhered to all government regulations and has caused no harm to anyone nor the environment," he said.

However, a lawyer for three villagers who filed the suit said it was abandoned because Indonesia's courts couldn't be relied on to render a fair decision, according to The Associated Press.

"Villagers didn't think the courts could ensure a fair verdict, so we're calling for the government to accept responsibility for their situation," said Iskandar Sitorus, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

As part of the settlement, Newmont agreed to continue spending millions on a sustainable development program and continue to monitor the environment in the area, according to a mine-closure plan already approved.

Newmont further agreed not to file a countersuit against the plaintiffs and agreed to withdraw a $2 million defamation suit filed Sept. 30 against Sitorus, who is head of the Legal Aid Foundation for Health.

Sitorus was one of three environmental activists -- none of whom are villager plaintiffs -- against whom Newmont filed suit earlier this year. The two other suits are pending. Newmont claimed Sitorus falsely accused Newmont's mine operations of causing Minamata disease, an illness related to mercury poisoning.

Residents on the bay have alleged that villagers were stricken with strange illnesses and that more than 30 have died of pollution-related illness since Newmont began mining near the bay in 1996.

Newmont, the world's largest gold-mining company, said it ceased operations at the mine Aug. 31 because gold deposits had been depleted after eight years.

Recent studies by the World Health Organization and the Indonesian Environmental Ministry confirmed Newmont's assertion that metals were not migrating to the water or fish. But research did find high levels of mercury and arsenic in the bay's sediments.

Newmont spokesman Doug Hock said Tuesday that the company had turned down an earlier settlement offer in which the company was asked to pay $4 million to the plaintiffs.

Newmont said it registered the agreement for withdrawal of the lawsuits with the South Jakarta district court on Dec. 23.

"The residents -- Rasit Rahman, Masna Stirman and Juhira Ratubane -- have officially acknowledged and affirmed that there is no evidence that mine tailings from PT Newmont Minahasa Raya's mining activities were the cause of any diseases that they may be suffering from," said Kasmali.

Separately, Newmont acknowledged last week that the Minahasa mine discharged 33 tons of mercury into the air and water in a four-year period but said that the releases did not have any health impact and that they were within legal limits.

The lawsuit settlement is not the end to the legal challenges Newmont faces in Indonesia. Indonesian prosecutors have said they plan to file criminal charges against Newmont and six executives in the next few weeks connected to the alleged pollution, with plans to bring them to trial as early as next month.

Hock said the tsunami that hit Asia Sunday did not affect Newmont's operations in Indonesia.

"It's in a different area," Hock said. "We're pretty far away from there."

Denver Post staff writer Greg Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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