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Indonesia to try American for pollution

Indonesian prosecutors filed charges against Newmont Mining Corp. and its top U.S. executive on Monday for allegedly polluting a bay with toxic waste.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Prosecutors filed charges against Newmont Mining Corp. and its top U.S. executive in Indonesia on Monday for allegedly polluting a bay with toxic waste, a lawyer said in a case closely watched by foreign investors.

“I was told that charges were filed with the court today,” said Newmont lawyer Luhut Pangaribuan, reiterating claims that the company did nothing wrong. “Our position is clear: There was no pollution.”

The Denver-based gold-mining company’s Indonesian subsidiary, Newmont Minahasa Raya, has been accused of causing dozens of residents on the island of Sulawesi to develop skin diseases and tumors.

Newmont began operations at the site 1,300 miles northeast of Jakarta in 1996 and stopped mining two years ago after extracting all the gold it could. But the company continued processing ore until Aug. 31, 2004, when the mine was permanently shut.

15-year sentence possible
Pangaribuan said Newmont and its chief U.S. executive in Indonesia, Richard Ness, were charged with polluting and damaging the environment — a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $78,000.

A trial could take place within weeks.

Court officials and prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment.

Foreign investors, especially those in the lucrative mining industry, have long complained of the difficulties of doing business in Indonesia because of rampant graft and a lack of legal certainty. Monday’s decision will likely add to such complaints.

Conflicting test results have made it difficult to prove that Newmont’s mine tailings caused villagers’ health problems in Sulawesi and the depletion of fishing stocks in Buyat Bay.

What reports found
The World Health Organization and an initial Environment Ministry report found that water was unpolluted, but a subsequent ministry study found arsenic levels in the seabed were 100 times higher at the waste-dumping site than in other parts of the bay.

However, the latest government study released in May found that heavy metal traces in villagers living close to the mine were within normal levels, although slightly higher than those living far from the facility.

Prosecutors last week decided not to file charges against five other Newmont employees — an American, an Australian and three Indonesians.