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West Timorese seaweed farmers have launched a class action against Montara for the devastating 2009 oil spill that has threatened their livelihoods. By Gabrielle Dunlevy.

Class action against Montara brought by West Timorese

Seaweed farmer Josias Ferroh and his daughter Angela.
Credit: RONI BINTANG

The calm, sparkling bay where Indonesian seaweed farmer Josias Ferroh launches his boat looks like paradise.

In the turquoise shallows, a group of boys are taking turns at playing with a pair of homemade goggles, their clothes left strewn along the rocky trail to the water’s edge.

Their laughter echoes around the canoe-dotted cove at Daiama, on the eastern island of Rote, but Ferroh will tell you this is not paradise.

Life changed dramatically in Rote, West Timor and smaller surrounding islands after the 2009 Montara oil spill, when millions of litres of oil spewed into the Timor Sea over 74 days.

Despite the enormous extent of the spill and the protracted, hapless effort to plug it, its remoteness – and the fact the currents swept the oil towards Rote, not Darwin – kept the disaster off the front pages and out of the consciousness of many Australians.

For our neighbours across the Timor Sea, it was another story. They saw oil washing into bays such as Daiama and scores of dead fish floating in stinking, rainbow-tinged muck.

But if the Montara spill was barely making news in Australia, it was totally unheard of in remote Indonesia.

A dismayed Ferroh couldn’t believe his eyes when his healthy seaweed crop mysteriously turned a sickly yellow, then white, then fell off the ropes, destroyed.

“I thought it must have been a disease,” he recalls.

Production crashed, and seven years on, seaweed crops have yet to regain full health.

With losses mounting into the billions of dollars, more than 13,000 seaweed growers have joined a class action against the company responsible for the spill, PTTEP Australasia.

Filed in the Federal Court in Sydney in August, it seeks $200 million from the Thai-owned operators of the Montara wellhead.

Australia’s worst offshore oil disaster merited a commission of inquiry, which found the company “did not come within a bull’s roar of sensible oilfield practice”.

But for the widespread, systemic shortcomings found to have directly led to the catastrophic blowout, a Darwin court fined PTTEP Australasia just $510,000 in 2012.

 

The wellhead lies almost equidistant from Australia and Indonesia – 212 kilometres from the Australian mainland and 250 kilometres from Rote.

It’s not known how much oil escaped in 2009, with estimates ranging from 400 to 1500 barrels a day.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority responded by spraying the slicks with 184,000 litres of chemical dispersants.

PTTEP Australasia, meanwhile, ordered its own investigations in the wake of the disaster, and found most of the Montara oil – 98 per cent – remained in Australian waters, and none reached the Indonesian coastline.

The commission of inquiry, however, acknowledged evidence that hydrocarbons did enter the waters of Indonesia and Timor-Leste “to a significant degree”.

Australia’s investigations for environmental damage stopped at the border, and Indonesia’s government – centralised 2000 kilometres away in Jakarta – didn’t pick up where it left off.

For more than six years, the communities have struggled to get any party to acknowledge their suffering.

Lawyer Greg Phelps, of the Darwin firm Ward Keller, was in West Timor in 2011 on a legal aid matter when he discovered the same oil spill that was out of mind for most Australians was being blamed for severe losses to local fishermen.

Unable to let it go, he returned and discovered stories of oil sheen in the water in the weeks after the Montara explosion were widespread and consistent.

So too were heartbreaking accounts of seaweed failure, and frustrated attempts to resume growing.

With West Timor community advocate Ferdi Tanoni, Phelps began fighting for a full study into the environmental impacts of the spill in Indonesia.

If Indonesia really was one of Australia’s most important relationships, Phelps reasoned, the government should at least work with Jakarta to explore the claims. But even after a direct request from Indonesian authorities in 2014, Canberra dodged the matter, saying it
was for Jakarta and PTTEP Australasia to resolve.

“The oil company and the Commonwealth would not engage with us to conduct an independent assessment of the impact because they were afraid of what they would find,” Phelps says.

“Now, having collected evidence in more than 70 seaweed-farming villages, hundreds of eye-witness accounts provide a compelling, consistent narrative of the pollution and the impact across the region.

“Their lives have changed forever. A profitable business that brought so much promise was destroyed by Montara pollution in 2009.”

If won, the $200 million class action led by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and funded by Harbour Litigation Funding will simply act as a stimulus and get the seaweed farmers back in business.

Indonesia’s Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies estimated the losses to the seaweed and fishing industries in the Nusa Tenggara Timur province – of which Rote and West Timor are part – at $1.5 billion a year since 2009.

PTTEP Australasia is confident its studies will stand up to the highest scrutiny.

If the reefs closest to Montara, where the oil and dispersants were at their greatest concentrations, did not show any lasting impact, “then it is highly improbable that the seas and coastline of Nusa Tenggara Timor would have been impacted”, the company says.

Nusa Tenggara Timur is one of the poorest provinces in the archipelago, and in 2008 was a top-five-priority area for Australia’s aid to Indonesia.

Rote has none of the lush green rice fields that come to mind when one thinks of an Indonesian vista. Its harsh, rocky terrain is unsuited to most crops other than cassava and maize.

The village of Daiama, in the island’s north, emerges from the arid landscape as a collection of neat, concrete block homes huddled between spiky lontar palms.

Josias Ferroh was one of the first to take a chance on seaweed when the industry launched there – ironically with some Australian government support – in 2001.

It was a lifeline that lifted his family out of generations of subsistence farming, and allowed him to send a child to university, fulfilling the dream of every parent in this poor region.

He and others in the village were soon able to make modest renovations to their homes, and he bought a motorbike to make the long ride to town a little easier.

Whatever killed the seaweed in September 2009, its impact was devastating.

Before 2009, some growers were earning as much as $30,000 a year. For the entire year of 2010, Ferroh made only $500 for his labour. Now, Daiama seaweed farmers are struggling to supplement an income of about $1000 a year with any other work they can find.

Some face the prospect of having to remove their children from school if seaweed production doesn’t improve.

Not only did the seaweed die in Daiama, the mangroves that once buffered the village from floods died, too.

Now a concrete seawall has been erected – a permanent scar above the shoreline.

In addition to the environmental impacts that were never studied is a mountain of complaints about illnesses that flared in late 2009, mostly recurring skin conditions.

Out on the water, Ferroh cuts the boat’s motor. We drift towards a friend who is sitting in his wooden canoe, patiently tending to his ropes of seaweed tied between bobbing floats made of soft-drink bottles.

“How’s it looking?” I ask. The man shrugs. Not as good as it was before.

Eight-year-old Angela Ferroh, along for the ride, pinches a branch off the seaweed and sucks on it.

Her father worries the waters that have always sustained his people, and are key to their future, might be polluted, and for years to come.

He can only wonder, too, whether whatever ails the seaweed is harming his family’s health.

“More than anything, I hope all of the sea can recover,” Ferroh says. “Because we can’t make a living on the land.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 8, 2016 as "Oil on troubled waters". Subscribe here.

Gabrielle Dunlevy
is a freelance journalist and former South-East Asia correspondent.