Facing Jail, US Mining Boss Says Pollution Trial a ‘Sham’

By P. Parameswaran

Agence France-Presse


WASHINGTON ~ A senior US executive from the world’s largest gold-producing firm looks at ease addressing a group at an exclusive Washington club, but he could soon be thrown into an Indonesian jail.

Rick Ness and US gold mining giant Newmont Mining Corp have for the past 30 months fought off charges of polluting a pristine Indonesian bay with waste from their gold mine on the island of Sulawesi.

They were also accused of sickening villagers and killing marine life around Manado where the mine was sited.

The trial, watched closely by the US government and business community, is expected to wind down in six to eight weeks after prosecutors demanded a three-year prison term for the 57-year-old Ness, who heads PT Newmont Minahasa Raya, the Indonesian subsidiary of the Denver-based company.

On a rare trip back to the United States ahead of the trial verdict, Ness  said Wednesday that the case against him and Newmont which erupted “like a bomb and exploded across the country” had collapsed like a pack of cards.

“In a great irony, while I sit in a courtroom in Manado accused of polluting Buyat Bay, the government tourist office in Manado now promotes Buyat Bay as a great tourist location and a top dive location because of its beautiful coral and colorful fish,” Ness told a forum at the Cosmos Club.

“There is literally no one left accusing us, yet a two-year trial has ensued and I still stand charged of these crimes and if I am found guilty when a verdict is read in about six to eight weeks, I will potentially go to jail for a crime that never even existed, let alone was committed,” he told the gathering of the US Indonesian Society (USINDO) and US-ASEAN Business Council.

A doctor and four villagers from the area of Newmont’s Minahasa Raya gold mine, whose claims that the mine had polluted the bay, killed the fish and caused a deadly plague amongst the villagers formed the basis for the trial, have pulled out of the case.

Ness said the doctor turned out “not to be a medical practitioner at all” and “never did any medical tests of the villagers” and has since “recanted her allegations.”

The villagers who filed a 500-million-dollar lawsuit against Newmont have now “dropped the suit and confessed they were not sick from any deadly plague,” he said.

Only water tests done by the Indonesian police showed Buyat Bay had been polluted with high levels of mercury and arsenic, contradicting by a magnitude of up to “two million percent” samplings of the World Health Organization, the Minimata Institute of Japan, Australia’s CSIRO laboratory and a local Indonesian university, he said.

In addition, Newmont and the Indonesian police each took 24 samples for separate tests but 34 samples had appeared in the police laboratory, he said.

“The prosecution can’t explain it, the police can’t explain it.”

Due to the discrepancy, the court ordered a resampling but the prosecutor refused, Ness said.

Newmont conducted resampling and compared the findings with samples taken from locations around the world, including the Sea of Japan, the English channel, the Atlantic, mid-Atlantic and mid-Pacific.

“It is ironic but actually Buyat Bay came in cleaner than all of them including the coast of Florida,” Ness said.

In fact, he said, a huge fish processing plant was being built right in the controversial location, further confirming that marine life there was safe.

American businesses see the Newmont case as a critical test of the rule of law, sanctity of investment contracts and protection of individual rights in Indonesia, according to US Chamber of Commerce chief Thomas Donohue.

Ness said five of his colleagues were thrown in a rat-infested jail for 30 days without being questioned.

While he accused investigators of flouting the rules, he said the five judges hearing the case were fair.

Despite the alleged mounting irregularities, Ness said there were no provisions in the Indonesian legal system for the case to be dismissed prematurely after he had been indicted.

“I asked myself, and asked rhetorically in my closing arguments, how can the prosecutors in this cases can look themselves in the eye after having brought this sham of a case to trial,” Ness said.

“There can be no good explanation. The only good that can come of it is to have my name and that of Newmont cleared and that the people Buyat Bay will know unquestionably that Buyat Bay is not polluted,” he said.

Ness, a miner all his adult life and married to an Indonesian, called for those who “perpetrated this hoax” to be investigated and prosecuted.

“It is truly concerning and frightening that to be honest could happen to anyone,” he said.

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