Broken pipe is ours, says Indonesian state oil and gas firm, in latest on massive oil spill

An Indonesian worker from state owned oil company, Pertamina, cleaning up oil on Melawai beach after an oil spill in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, on April 4, 2018.
An Indonesian worker from state owned oil company, Pertamina, cleaning up oil on Melawai beach after an oil spill in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, on April 4, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Indonesia's state oil and gas company Pertamina has admitted that one of its pipelines, which was being used to transfer crude oil, had been the cause of an oil spill in Balikpapan Bay, East Kalimantan, last week.

The firm previously denied its involvement in the incident and claimed after collecting samples from nine different locations in the bay that the spill comprised marine fuel oil, which is used as fuel for ships.

A 10th oil-spill sample, however, confirmed that the pollutant was crude oil and not the marine fuel oil Pertamina had first suspected.

"We discovered that a pipeline had been dragged 120m from its initial location, (causing it to break)," Mr Togar MP, general manager of Pertamina Refinery Unit, said in a press conference on Wednesday (Apr 4).

The steel underwater pipe, which rests 25m below sea level, measures 50.8cm in diameters.

Pertamina began using the pipeline in 1998 to funnel crude oil from its Lawe-lawe terminal in North Penajem Paser to an oil refinery in Balikpapan.

"When the oil spill was detected, we shut down the pipeline to prevent (further spillage)," Mr Togar said, adding that the firm was still trying to determine how much oil had spilled into the bay.

Meanwhile, East Kalimantan Police special crimes director, Senior Commissioner Yustan Alpian, said his unit was "still investigating the cause of the broken pipe".

Investigators have questioned 11 witnesses, including port authority and Pertamina personnel, residents in the area, and the skipper of coal cargo vessel MV Ever Judger 2, which was docked at the bay when the oil spill triggered a fire last Saturday, he added.

Any responsible parties in the incident could face imprisonment or a fine should they be found guilty of negligence causing environmental damages under the 2009 law on environmental protection and conservation.

At least five fishermen died in the fire over the weekend.

An Irrawaddy dolphin was also found dead and stranded on a beach behind the Balikpapan Legislative Council building.

According to the Environment and Forestry Ministry's report released on Wednesday, the oil spill affected some 7,000 hectares of Balikpapan Bay.

Around 60km of the area's coastline, stretching from Balikpapan to North Penajam Pasir regency, have been marred with oil.

The spill also affected around 34 hectares of mangrove trees in Kariagau village, as well as 6,000 mangrove trees and 2,000 mangrove seeds in Atas Air Margasari village.

Dead crabs found on Banua Patra Beach were also believed to be a result of the spill, according to the ministry.

Meanwhile, residents in the area have complained of experiencing nausea, difficulty breathing and vomiting since last Saturday

Satellite images from the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space on Monday showed that the oil spill has covered 12,987 hectares of Balikpapan Bay.

A team of high-ranking officials from the environment ministry, including its director general for law enforcement, is in Balikpapan to look into the possibility of holding responsible any entity that caused the incident, while calculating how much the resulting damages may cost.

It is the largest environmental tragedy ever recorded in East Kalimantan, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.

"This is also the largest environmental tragedy in Indonesia in the last 10 years. Until today, you can still smell fuel around Balikpapan Bay," said Mr Fathur Roziqin Fen of the Forum's East Kalimantan office. "This is a serious crime."