Montara oil spill: 15,500 Indonesian seaweed farmers take fight to Federal Court

[Australia, Indonesia] More than 15,000 Indonesian seaweed farmers who say Australia’s worst-ever oil spill destroyed their livelihoods are about to learn if the Federal Court will hear their case.

The farmers, from the East Nusa Tengara province, say their crops were destroyed as a result of the 2009 Montara oil spill.

Eight years on, the company responsible PTTEP Australasia, has maintained the spill was contained and never reached the Indonesian coastline.

The class action’s lead claimant, Daniel Sanda, said his life changed overnight.

“Before the oil came, my seaweed crops were rich and healthy, and the income from seaweed harvesting was good,” Mr Sanda said.
“In 2009, after the oil came, my seaweed became white and weak, then fell down and was washed away by the current.”

PHOTO: Seaweed farmers in the East Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia say their crops were damaged. (Supplied: Greg Phelps)

Painstaking process to gather claimants

Legal proceedings only got underway through the Australian courts thanks to the dogged efforts of Darwin lawyer Greg Phelps.

Mr Phelps has spent much of the past three years visiting 81 villages, gathering evidence and sign-ups for the class action.

“The evidence is very clear and the timing [of the pollution] coincides with the Montara oil spill,” Mr Phelps said.

“The scale of it is obvious, and the fact that all of this polluting material arrived in the environment at the same time that the Montara was releasing oil into the Timor Sea.”

Oil not to blame, company says

Mr Phelps said he believed the level of scientific inquiry would have been remarkably different if it were Australians claiming their farms had been destroyed.

“If this oil had flowed into the Kimberley — if it had destroyed something of Australia’s natural beauty — there would have been an outcry,” Mr Phelps said.

“People all around Australia would have been up in arms.

“The fortunate thing for the oil company is that it went north, it crossed the Indonesian border. No investigation was conducted in Indonesian waters at all. And people breathed a sigh of relief and hoped they’d never have to hear about it again.”

PTTEP Australasia categorically rejected the suggestion its oil was to blame for the dead seaweed.

In a statement, the company said:

“While PTTEP AA does not deny the possibility that the communities of Nusa Tenggara Timor have experienced seaweed production decline, PTTEP AA rejects any connection between the Montara oil spill and these claims.

“There is strong evidence that suggests the decline in seaweed production was caused by environmental factors unrelated to the potential impacts of hydrocarbon pollution.”

The company did not elaborate as to what other environmental factors it believed may have caused the seaweed to die.

But Mr Phelps contended there were glaring holes in the scientific evidence that was gathered by the oil company.

He said maps provided to him under Freedom of Information laws by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority showed sheens of oil were detected as close as 20 nautical miles off the coast of Rote.

“Most of the scientific work was conducted between the oil rig and the Australian coast, where no oil went. Simply, the oil company did not do enough to follow the oil and actually see what impact it had,” Mr Phelps said.

Industry support for oil company’s claims

Malcolm Roberts, the CEO of Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, stood by the company’s science.

“We had a four-year program that was incredibly comprehensive — very, very detailed work done by leading experts in their field — [and] the results are there for everyone to see,” Mr Roberts said.

He said he supported PTTEP’s official stance: that the closest recorded instance of oil being detected in Indonesian waters was 94 kilometres from the Indonesian coastline.

“And by that stage the oil would have been weathered, been broken up into a relatively thin sheen or flakes, at the surface level, so that was quite a distance away from the coastline,” Mr Roberts said.

An Australian Federal Court judge is now considering whether to allow the class action to go ahead, despite the claimants being out of time.

Northern Territory law applies in this case, and ordinarily class actions must be lodged within three years of an incident.

However, the same law allows for discretion, and the class action will go ahead if the Judge agrees Mr Sanda did not know his legal rights or the details of what had happened in the Timor Sea until he was formally interviewed by Mr Phelps in 2015.

For the seaweed farmers, it will be a nervous wait for a decision. This is their last chance to be heard.

Mr Phelps said he and the seaweed farmers were not contemplating the prospect of losing.

“I’m reassured by the fact that when we visit our seaweed farmer clients now … the main thing [they say] is you remembered us, and you’ve come and you’re fighting for us,” Mr Phelps said.

 

Photo: Daniel Sanda is the lead claimant. (Supplied: Greg Phelps)

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