Montara oil spill: Australia’s six years of failure

21st Aug 2015

The Australian Government has failed in its responsibility to investigate the effects of the country’s worst-ever oil spill from an oil rig, from which devastated fishing villages and communities across Indonesia still feel the impact today, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

Six years ago today, the Montara oil spill spewed oil and gas into 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 dispersant, some of which are extremely toxic, to the oil as it flowed north.

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

Australian Lawyers Alliance National President Greg Phelps said it was absolutely shameful that there was still no proper independent research conducted in affected areas to assess the damage caused by the Montara spill.

“For six years, the Australian government has ignored the reportedly multi-billion dollar impacts of the Montara oil spill in Indonesia,” Mr Phelps said.

“Despite being specifically asked by the Indonesian government for assistance last year, the Australian government has made no effort of any kind.”

“This is appalling, given the importance of the Australian-Indonesian relationship,” Mr Phelps said.

“Australia has turned a blind eye to the damage that has burdened our closest neighbours, despite the fact that oil flowed from an Australian-registered company, in Australian waters, under the failed watch of an Australian regulator.” 

“Under international law, a state is meant to ensure that damage from activities in their own state does not impinge on the sovereignty of another. This has clearly not been done,” Mr Phelps said.

“Eyewitnesses in Indonesia saw oil on their coastline. The polluting company said that the oil never got there. The Australian government has buried its head in the sand.”

“The Australian Lawyers Alliance has found in our investigation that oil reached the Indonesian coast[1], yet nothing has been done,” Mr Phelps said.

“The Montara oil spill was a major environmental catastrophe on Australia’s watch.”

“Entire communities have been kept in the dark about why their livelihoods have been destroyed and what Australia is going to do to fix its mess,” Mr Phelps said.

“At the moment, it looks like Australia intends to do nothing and is waiting for the issue to quietly go away.”

“Meanwhile these people are left to worry about their future and the futures of their children, as people around them grow ill, and their economy continues in crisis.”  

Mr Phelps said that in 2010, the Montara Commission of Inquiry (which had powers almost equivalent to a royal commission) found[2] that ‘evidence before the Inquiry indicated that hydrocarbons entered Indonesian and Timor Leste waters to a significant degree’.

He said however that despite such findings, there has been no effort to investigate this finding further, and to follow the oil.

Mr Phelps said that the Australian Lawyers Alliance’s report found that within a fortnight of the spill, Indonesian fishermen and coastal communities reported that the oil was fouling their fishing grounds, killing fish and destroying seaweed farms. People began experiencing itchy skin conditions, inexplicable bruising and severe food poisoning requiring hospitalisation.

“If an Australian spilled toxic waste into the backyard of a neighbour, they would be held more accountable than the company who spilled millions of litres of oil into the Timor Sea,” Mr Phelps said.

“Nothing is stopping the Australian government from making an offer of assistance to Indonesia, especially given that, prior to the 2013 election, Prime Minister Tony Abbott described Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as ‘perhaps our most important relationship’,” Mr Phelps said.

“We encourage the government to recognise the nature of this relationship and finally act to find out what happened as a result of the Montara oil spill.”


[2] (p.26)


Tags: Access to justice Indonesia Montara oil spill