Newmont admits emitting mercury

Indonesia – U.S. gold mining company Newmont admitted that it released mercury into the environment at one of its Indonesian mines but denied that it had any health impact on its employees or nearby residents.

Newmont Mining Corp., which has been accused by Indonesian police of polluting a bay near its gold mine and sickening dozens of residents, insisted in its statement Wednesday that it had adhered to all ‘appropriate standards.’

The Denver, Colorado-based company said 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.’

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

The allegations could raise further questions about the company’s environmental record and complicate its legal fight against authorities in Indonesia.

Company officials were quoted by the Times as admitting that the mine had released 33 tons of mercury into the air and water near the mine, but saying that the emissions did not harm people and fell within government standards.

In a statement faxed to The Associated Press on Wednesday, the company said that scrubbers it installed to minimize mercury emissions experienced ‘some operations issues’ but that emissions from the plant ‘at no time endangered human health or the environment.’

A company spokesman, Doug Hock, later said that over a five-year period the mine released 17 tons of mercury into the air 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.’

The acknowledgment of the mercury emissions is the latest setback for the company in its six-month battle to defend itself against pollution allegations. Mercury can be harmful to the nervous system if consumed in large quantities, especially by children or pregnant women.

Police have accused Newmont Minahasa Raya, the Indonesian subsidiary of Newmont, of dumping heavy metals into Buyat Bay, causing residents to develop skin diseases and tumors.

Last month, police filed a dossier of evidence against 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.

The five are expected to go on trial next month and have been banned from traveling outside Sulawesi island.

Villagers have also filed a US$543 million (£406 million) lawsuit against the company, and environmentalist have talked of filing additional litigation.

Newmont executives have consistently portrayed themselves as good corporate citizens. Earlier this month, Newmont CEO Wayne Murdy told reporters in Jakarta that the company did not pollute the bay and would continue seeking business in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

‘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 on behalf of the company.

He also accused ‘critics of the mining industry’ of manipulating scientific data and ‘taking advantage’ of Buyat residents. 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’s difficulties in Indonesia are the latest in a string of accusations growing out of the company’s operations on five continents.

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.

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