Indonesia investigates deadly oil spill in eastern Borneo

  • An oil spill and ensuing fire in Balikpapan Bay in Indonesian Borneo over the weekend has been blamed for the deaths of at least four fishermen and an endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.
  • State oil firm Pertamina, which operates a refinery and undersea pipeline in the area, has denied any link to the oil, suggesting it came from a ship.
  • The environment ministry has deployed a team to investigate the source of the spill and survey the extent of the damage caused.

UPDATE (Apr. 4, 2018): Pertamina admitted responsibility for the oil spill because its pipes broke and leaked. 

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has launched an investigation into a major oil spill in Borneo amid reports linking the incident to the deaths of four fishermen and an endangered dolphin.

The spill in Balikpapan Bay, in East Kalimantan province, was first reported on the morning of March 31, when local fishermen noticed a strange smell near an offshore refinery operated by state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina. Workers later attempted to clean up the slick by setting it on fire, but the blaze grew out of control.

Four people were killed in the fire, all believed to be fishermen. One other person was seriously injured, while another is missing.

Oil spill in Balikpapan Bay on the morning of March 31. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Balikpapan.

On the evening of April 1, locals reported the discovery of a dead Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) washed up on the coast near the oil spill, suggesting it had died from the toxic slick.

“We have taken samples of the animal, and it would take about a week to make sure the cause of its death,” said Danielle Kreb, a marine biologist with the Rare Aquatic Species Indonesia (RASI), an NGO.

The Irrawaddy dolphin, listed as endangered by the IUCN, is a protected species under Indonesian law. Killing it carries hefty fines and a possible jail sentence.

“The fire was quite big, about two kilometers high,” said Octaviano, a senior official with the East Kalimantan search and rescue agency, as quoted by the AFP. “It can be seen from Balikpapan city and the smell was all over the place.”

A boat carrying coal was temporarily stuck near the fire, but the search and rescue team managed to evacuate all 20 crew on board.

The local disaster mitigation agency extinguished the fire shortly after, preventing it from spreading to other areas, but the oil slick remains in waters in the area.

Locals also reported experiencing health problems, including nausea and breathing difficulty, over the weekend.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry said on April 2 that it had deployed a team to survey the extent of the oil spill and its source, and mitigate any impact from the incident.

“Our team has taken samples to check where the oil is from,” Rasio Ridho Sani, the ministry’s director general of law enforcement, said at a press conference in Jakarta. “In the meantime, we have also set oil [spill containment] booms to make sure the slick doesn’t spread further.”

A dead Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) was found washed up on the shore near the oil spill. Photo courtesy of the Rare Aquatic Species Indonesia (RASI).

Pertamina said the oil spill was not from crude oil produced at its refinery or transported through its undersea pipeline in the area. It said it had identified the oil as being fuel oil for ships.

“We have studied oil samples from the spill, and it’s not from Pertamina,” Yudi Nugraha, a spokesman for Pertamina, said at a press conference in Balikpapan on March 31.

Pertamina also said the company’s divers had not found any leaks in the pipeline.

Local fishermen and environmentalists, however, are skeptical about the company’s claims.

“We think there must be a leak from the Pertamina pipe because it’s located very close to the oil — maybe 100 meters,” Pradarma Rupang, from the local environmental group Jatam, told the ABC. “There is no shipwreck, no collision, no sinking ship, no burned ship, nothing. Suddenly oil appears in the middle of the sea.”

The environment ministry said in a statement on April 3 that its team had collected 69,300 liters (18,300 gallons) of oil as of the evening of April 2. It said it would take some time to investigate the incident, but was confident that it could solve it.

“We have to be very sure where this oil comes from, whether it’s from Pertamina or others,” Rasio said, adding the party behind the spill would be held liable for the slick clean-up and ecosystem recovery.

The ministry has deployed drones to get an aerial view of the extent of the spill, and asked for satellite images of the affected area from the National Aeronautics and Space Institute (Lapan). It has also sought data on oil tanker activity in the bay from the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla).

“We have told our teams and also Pertamina to prioritize cleaning up the spill near settlements, considering the strong smell and other potential risks [from the slick],” Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said in a statement. “I will continue to monitor the efforts, and hopefully we can resolve this incident quickly together with other related institutions.”

Boat accidents are common in Indonesia, which relies heavily on shipping to move people and cargo between its thousands of islands. Oil spills, however, are much rarer.

Indonesia investigates deadly oil spill in eastern Borneo
The fire from the oil spill in Balikpapan Bay, East Kalimantan province. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Balikpapan.

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