From: Michael Casey, Associated Press
Published December 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Newmont Admits Emitting Mercury in Indonesia, Denies Health Impact

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A U.S. mining company has admitted that it released tons of mercury into the air and water over a period of years at one of its Indonesian gold mines, but denied that it had any health impact on people.


The acknowledgment by Newmont Mining Corp. on Wednesday is the latest setback for the company in its six-month battle to defend against pollution allegations. Indonesian police have accused its local subsidiary, Newmont Minahasa Raya, of dumping heavy metals into Buyat Bay, causing residents to develop skin diseases and tumors.


In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, the Denver-based company insisted that it had adhered to all "appropriate standards" and that at no time "did any test or monitoring data show that there were health impacts to employees or the community as a result of operations."


A company spokesman, Doug Hock, said the mine released 17 tons of mercury into the air over five years and 16 tons into the water.


"The government was aware that there was mercury being released from the plant," Hock said from Denver. "This is not news. It is not a surprise to anyone."


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Newmont was responding to an article in The New York Times saying that an internal report from 2001 warned that the mine in Buyat Bay on Sulawesi island was putting tons of toxic mercury into the environment. The internal report also said the company wasn't abiding by its public claims that it was upholding U.S. environmental standards, the Times said.


Indonesia plans to put on trial next month five Newmont executives -- an American, an Australian and three Indonesians -- accusing them of corporate crimes in connection with the pollution. If found guilty, they could face up to 15 years in jail.


Villagers have also filed a US$543 million (euro406 million) lawsuit against the company and environmentalists have talked of filing additional litigation.


In its statement Wednesday, the company said it had installed mercury scrubbers to minimize emissions. It acknowledged the scrubbers "did experience some operations issues" but that emissions from the plant "at no time endangered human health or the environment."


Despite their problems, Newmont executives have consistently portrayed themselves as good corporate citizens.


Earlier this month, the company's CEO Wayne Murdy told reporters in Jakarta that the company did not pollute the bay.


"It's clear that those allegations are totally unfounded," Murdy said at the end of a five-day visit to Jakarta to lobby Indonesian Cabinet ministers over the case.


He also accused "critics of the mining industry" of manipulating scientific data.


The company also contends that illegal miners -- thousands of whom operate openly around its mine -- caused much of the pollution, dumping tons of mercury into nearby rivers.


A myriad of tests on the bay have produced conflicting results.


The World Health Organization and an initial Environment Ministry report found the water unpolluted.


But a subsequent ministry study found that arsenic levels in the seabed were 100 times higher at the waste-dumping site than in other parts of the bay. Mercury levels found in organisms such as worms, living in the seabed at the dumping site, were 10 times higher than in other parts of the bay, according to the study.


Newmont, which operates on five continents, has faced a string of accusations.


Opponents in Peru have sued Newmont over a mercury spill near its Yanacocha mine that allegedly sickened 1,100. It also abandoned exploration rights in November to a rich gold deposit in northern Peru following angry protests.


In Turkey, the company's Ovacik mine was shut down in August over concerns about the use of cyanide to processing the ore. Newmont is also battling environmentalists in Nevada who say its proposed Phoenix mine expansion will cause groundwater contamination. The company denies it.


Newmont stopped mining two years ago at the Sulawesi site, 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) northeast of the capital, Jakarta, after extracting all the gold it could, but kept processing ore there until Aug. 31, 2004, when the mine was permanently shut.


Source: Associated Press


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