New Montara Report highlights Australia’s six years of failure

15th Jul 2015

A new investigative report released today has called for the Federal Government to negotiate for a full investigation with Indonesia, to pinpoint the cause of economic and environmental devastation experienced by seaside communities in Indonesia following the worst offshore oil spill in Australia’s history.

The call was made following the release today of the Australian Lawyers Alliance’s two-year study into the disaster: After the Spill: Investigating Australia’s Montara Oil Disaster in Indonesia.

The Montara oil spill began on 21 August 2009, after the Montara wellhead spewed oil for 74 days into Australian waters of the Timor Sea. 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 dispersants 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.

ALA National President Greg Phelps said it was high time that the Australian government took action to assist its neighbours, after it had avoided the issue for nearly six years by claiming it had no jurisdiction. Mr Phelps said this was despite the fact that the Indonesian government directly asked for assistance in settling the issue last year.

“It is ridiculous that for nearly six years the Australian government has done nothing to help devastated communities in Indonesian communities following the spill of millions of litres of oil, when companies in Australia are regularly prosecuted for oil spills of only ten or 20 litres,” Mr Phelps said.

“The government has maintained that it has no jurisdiction to take action - however, it is clear that the government does have the jurisdiction to open up negotiations.”

“It is not beyond the government’s jurisdiction to offer help to the communities in Australia’s closest neighbour which have experienced economic and environmental catastrophe following the Montara oil spill,” Mr Phelps said.

“Why doesn’t the government just make them an offer of assistance and see what they say?”

“All we have ever asked for is for a thorough independent study establishing the extent of the damage, so that communities can begin getting their lives back on track.”

Mr Phelps said that by offering to help fund a study into the effects of the spill, the Australian government would go some way to repairing the nation’s strained relationship with Indonesia. Just yesterday Indonesia slashed the number of import permits for live Australian cattle, with grave potential consequences for local cattle producers.

“Prior to the last election, the Prime Minister described Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as ‘perhaps our most important relationship’,” Mr Phelps said.

“Now, with this direct approach for assistance from the Indonesian government, it is time to support this claim with action.”

According to the report:

“The evidence … points to a larger environmental and social disaster than has been officially acknowledged by the Australian government or the polluting company PTTEP Australasia.

“Thousands of people have struggled to make a living and educate their children following devastation of their livelihoods. Their plight has been ignored.

“Communities say that in 2009 they saw oil washing into seaweed farms, onto beaches, onto the hulls of boats, and fouling fishing grounds and trawler nets. Witnesses described coral turning white; the precious farmed seaweed turning yellow, then white and falling off its ropes, destroyed.

Communities described the white ‘sickness’ that later appeared on the seaweed and which worsened with specific currents. Fishermen said that there are no longer any fish to catch in fishing grounds which they have fished for years. The death of mangroves removed a crucial bulwark to the ocean and there was subsequent flooding of villages.”

“Indonesia’s Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies has estimated that the economic loss caused by the Montara spill to the fishing and seaweed industries in NTT amounts to approximately AU$1.5 billion per year since 2009.”

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

“Today marks five years since the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico stopped,” Mr Phelps said.  

“Since the Deepwater Horizon spill began, BP paid $20 billion as a compensation down payment, billions of dollars in compensation, and will potentially pay an additional $18.7 billion in a settlement with the US government.”

“In contrast, PTTEP Australasia paid a $510,000 fine for Montara. That has to be the cheapest major oil spill in history,” Mr Phelps said.

“While the US government showed remarkable leadership in the aftermath of BP Deepwater Horizon, which affected its own citizens, it is clear that the people of Nusa Tenggara Timur have been caught in a stalemate about boundaries, as the Australian government has failed to provide assistance.”

“Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez spill, oil can still be found. If oil is in the sediments in Indonesia, it is waiting to be found. It is not too late,” Mr Phelps said.  

“We are asking the Australian government to work with Indonesia to ensure that an independent investigation occurs. Much time has already been wasted. But it is not too late for Australia to work to redress the situation and bolster greater ties with Indonesia.”

The ALA’s report can be downloaded here.

Tags: Human rights Indonesia Montara oil spill