A trial against oil company PTTEP began in Australia’s Federal Court this week, following a lawsuit by thousands of Indonesian seaweed farmers who claim the company was negligent in failing to avert an oil spill that cost them their livelihoods.
The 2009 Montara oil spill saw — over 74 days — millions of liters of oil dumped across 90,000 square kilometers in the Timor Sea. The offshore oil well explosion allegedly immediately destroyed seaweed farms in Indonesian waters. Farmers claim the chemicals used after the spill to break down the oil caused a significant decrease in seaweed production over ensuing years.
The farmers are seeking over $200 million AUD in compensation.
Ben Slade, a lawyer representing the farmers, said PTTEP need to pay farmers for the harm caused.
"Our experts contend that approximately 6,000 barrels of oil per day contaminated the sea — that's akin to pouring over 70 million liters of sludge into the ocean over the months that the environmental disaster dragged on for,” Slade announced in a statement.
"We are now 10 years on from this environmental disaster. The oil company responsible and its wealthy Thai parent continue to deny the devastating impact their oil spewing out uncontrollably for months on end had on Indonesian seaweed farmers,” he added.
Seaweed in West #Timor#Indonesia after #Montara oil spill - August 2013. pic.twitter.com/34OKLcKd4k— AU_LawyersAlliance (@AustLawAlliance) August 21, 2015
Two years after the spill, TTFPP was fined and forced to pay $510,000 for failing to maintain good oilfield practice.
While the company accepted blame for the explosion, they claim the independent environmental research they funded following the spill revealed no oil had reached the Indonesian coastline and that there has been “no lasting negative impact” on the region’s biodiversity.
An After the Spill report, released by Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) in 2015, paints a different picture
"Thousands of people have struggled to make a living and educate their children following the devastation of their livelihoods,” the report states. “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 amounts to approximately $1.5 billion per year since 2009.”
Beyond the cost to livelihoods, the ALA report states the environmental damage is pervasive and continues today.
"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,” the report continues. “The precious farmed seaweed turned yellow, then white and then fell off its ropes, destroyed. The death of mangroves removed a crucial bulwark [which caused] flooding of villages.”
Similarly, the World Wildlife Fund observed animals like spinner dolphins and threatened turtles swimming in the oil.
The trial will run for 10 weeks in Sydney. Over 30 Indonesian witnesses, seaweed farmers, environmental specialists, and oil spill experts are expected to give evidence.