Five years of waiting for investigation into Montara oil spill

Five years of waiting for investigation into Montara oil spill

21st Aug 2014

Five years ago today, the Montara oil spill spread like a shadow over the Timor Sea. It was one of Australia’s worst ever oil disasters, with slicks of oil stretching over the horizon for 74 days from August until November 2009.  

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. On far flung islands, some fishermen died.

For five years, local communities, government officials, and Indonesian non-government organisation West Timor Care Foundation, have called for further investigation. These calls have fallen on deaf ears.

The company responsible for the spill, PTTEP Australasia, has continued to assert that the oil never reached the Australian mainland or the Indonesian coast. 

The Australian government has handballed the issue.

The Minister for Industry, the Hon. Ian Macfarlane, in correspondence to the Australian Lawyers Alliance dated 22 July 2014, stated that:

‘The Australian Government has not been approached by the Indonesian government to undertake any environmental monitoring… Any issues relating to environmental damage in Indonesian waters are a matter for the Indonesian government to take up with the company.’ 

In 2010, the Montara Commission of Inquiry, which had powers almost equivalent to a royal commission, examined the causes of the spill. The Inquiry Report found (at 26) that ‘evidence before the Inquiry indicated that hydrocarbons entered Indonesian and Timor Leste waters to a significant degree’.

However, despite such findings, there has been no effort to investigate this finding further, and to follow the oil.

In 2013, a nine month study by Dr Mukhtasor of Indonesia’s Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies, found that economic loss in the region was equivalent to AU$1.5 billion every year since the spill. 

In 2010, following the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama demanded that BP commit US$20 billion as a down payment into a special compensation fund for victims. 

By contrast, communities in East Nusa Tenggara have received nothing.

Last year, 60 Minutes reported on the toxic impacts of Corexit on human life in the Gulf of Mexico spill, stating that the use of Corexit increased the toxicity of oil 52-fold. Many people have subsequently died.  

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority sprayed a cocktail of more than 180,000 litres of dispersants onto the oil for months during the spill, including Corexit.

The reticence of the Australian government to be more proactively involved in assisting the Indonesian government must certainly be questioned. 

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies now has a clearer expectation of the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in incidents that cross international boundaries. However, its Guideline on the Coordination of International Incidents, which would provide further expectation on the proactivity of DFAT’s role, is still in draft and not publicly available. 

There is nothing 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’.

However, if any 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. 

The failure of the Australian government to consider the destruction of the lives, health, hopes and economy of our closest neighbours is a decision that should be subject to further scrutiny.

The next generation in East Nusa Tenggara will suffer the effects of the Australian government’s inaction. Children are being withdrawn from schooling across the province as their families, with destroyed livelihoods, can no longer afford basic education costs.

As one seaweed farmer put it: ‘our children’s futures have vanished along with the green gold seaweed.’

Such a tragedy has been largely invisible to Australians. Many of the communities living on the scattered, idyllic islands of East Nusa Tenggara are poor. The province - the closest Indonesian province to Australia - was rated among the top five for priority by the Australian aid program in 2008. Far from Jakarta, and far from the scrutiny of the Australian media, any damage experienced by communities has remained unexplored and unresolved. 

Today marks five years since the Montara spill started in Australian waters of the Timor Sea.

Five years of no investigations, five years of no health warnings. Five years of communities kept in the dark as they continue to worry about their future and the futures of their children, as people around them grow ill, and their seaweed continues to die. 

Excuses cannot be made any longer.

The Australian government must work with the Indonesian and Timor Leste governments, affected communities and their agents, towards securing a mutual agreement for an independent investigation, to be funded by the company responsible. 

Now is the time for the Australian government to step up and to reinforce ‘perhaps our most important relationship’, with action. 


Emily Mitchell
was the Legal and Policy Officer at the Australian Lawyers Alliance from 2011 to 2016. In August 2013, she travelled to Kupang, West Timor and met with communities claiming to be affected by the Montara oil spill. 

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Human rights Indonesia Montara oil spill Emily Mitchell