Five years on – and still no justice on Montara oil spill

21st Aug 2014

Communities claiming to be left economically and environmentally devastated by Australia’s worst-ever offshore oil spill are still waiting for justice and an investigation five years on, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

The Montara oil spill began on 21 August 2009, after an explosion at a wellhead saw oil spew into the Australian waters of the Timor Sea for 74 days. Millions of litres of oil polluted the ocean, creating oil slicks which soon stretched over the horizon towards Indonesia.  Australian authorities applied 184,000 litres of poisonous dispersant to the oil as it flowed north.

Since then, local economies in the East Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia have lost billions of Australian dollars, with communities also reporting widespread sickness and health conditions they claim are caused by the oil spill.

Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson Greg Phelps said that in the five years since the oil spill, no responsibility has been taken by the polluting oil company PTTEP Australasia, or by the Australian Government, to assess the disaster as the oil and dispersant mixture flowed across the international boundary.

“Australia’s official response after five years of the Montara oil spill has been nothing short of appalling,” Mr Phelps said.

“If Australian citizens were subject to the kinds of reports of deaths, skin ulcerations, environmental devastation and loss of livelihood, there would be public outcry, parliamentary inquiries and more. The silence on this issue has been deafening.  We have turned our back on some of the region’s poorest citizens.”

According to studies funded by PTTEP, no oil officially reached the shores of either the Australian mainland or Indonesia. However, Mr Phelps said research in the five years since had shown these initial studies were inadequate, being based on computer-based trajectory modelling with no independent research conducted in Indonesian waters.

Mr Phelps said that a thorough independent study establishing the extent of the damage caused by the Montara oil spill was urgently required so that authorities could assess whether compensation and remedial action was required. 

“In the five years since the Montara oil spill Australia has done nothing to assess let alone clean up the mess it has made in the waters of Indonesia and Timor Leste,” Mr Phelps said.

“It is a disgrace that the impact of the largest offshore oil spill in Australia’s history has not been appropriately investigated on the shores of our closest neighbours.” 

“It is unacceptable that five years on, there has still been no assessment, clean up and no remediation in the waters of Indonesia or Timor Leste,” Mr Phelps said. 

“The Australian Government can talk about the importance of building ties with Indonesia, but how can that happen if it is not even prepared to investigate extraordinary harm to Indonesians that may have spread from Australia.”

Mr Phelps said that based on reports prepared by Indonesian universities, Indonesian fishing and seaweed communities in the East Nusa Tenggara region have lost more than AU$1.5 billion every year since the spill. In one village, seaweed farmers are earning less than 1 per cent of their pre-spill income. Farmed seaweed  is ridden with  a noxious white  canker and dies in the water.

“These communities absolutely depend on the environment, which is reported to have been devastated in the five years since the oil spill,” Mr Phelps said.

“No one knows how much oil and dispersant reached these waters or how much still lurks in the natural environment.”

“Thousands of villagers across the region are citing lost fish catches and dead seaweed farms,” Mr Phelps said.

“In one village, a third of its population has migrated to find alternative work since 2009. The authorities report that people have died from eating poisoned fish; mysterious cysts have appeared on fishermen’s hands.”

Dr Robert Spies, the US Government chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez oil spill has visited the region, and after reviewing the evidence, has called for a proper scientific investigation into the Montara spill to be conducted in Indonesian waters.

“The Australian government must work to secure a mutual agreement for independent research with the governments of Indonesia, Timor Leste, affected communities and their agents, and the company responsible,” Mr Phelps said.

“This research, in keeping with international standards, should also be funded by the company responsible.”

“The people of East Nusa Tenggara and Timor Leste deserve an answer. It is not only their environment and economy that was damaged five years ago. Their ocean is life itself to these people,” Mr Phelps said.

Click here for an opinion piece by Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson Emily Mitchell about the five-year anniversary of the Montara oil spill.

Tags: Indonesia Montara oil spill