Indonesia court clears Newmont in pollution suit

JAKARTA (Reuters) - An Indonesian court on Tuesday cleared the local unit of Newmont Mining Corp. over an environmental group’s lawsuit accusing it of polluting a bay near a gold mine.

Indonesian judge I Ketut Manika (L) talks during the trial of the local unit of Newmont Mining Corp. in South Jakarta court December 18, 2007. The Indonesian court has cleared the local unit of Newmont Mining Corp. over pollution allegations filed in a civil case by an environmental group, the chief judge said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Crack Palinggi

It was Newmont’s second win in an Indonesian court over the pollution allegations, closely-watched cases seen as a test of attitudes towards foreign firms and environmental protection in the world’s fourth most populous nation.

“The plaintiff could not prove that Newmont polluted the environment, sickening fish and damaging coral reefs,” presiding judge I Ketut Manika told the South Jakarta Court.

The environmental group Walhi had accused PT Newmont Minahasa Raya in a lawsuit filed in March of carelessly disposing of mining tailings, causing environmental problems and endangering the health of people around the U.S. firm’s now defunct gold mine in North Sulawesi province. In April, a court cleared PT Newmont Minahasa Raya and its president Richard Ness over criminal charges accusing the company of dumping toxic waste into Buyat bay in a 20-month trial.

An appeal was filed in late May to the Supreme Court in a bid to overturn the ruling. Newmont’s Indonesian unit and Ness have asked the Supreme Court to reject that appeal.

Indonesia’s Environment Ministry said in 2004 that arsenic and mercury content in waste dumped by Newmont had contaminated sediment and entered the food chain.

But other tests failed to find abnormal pollution levels.

Newmont and Ness have denied the charges, pointing to the studies that have found no evidence of pollution.

After Tuesday’s ruling, a lawyer for Walhi vowed to fight on.

“We will appeal this decision to the high court,” Walhi’s lawyer Firman Wijaya told reporters.

Newmont’s lawyer Luhut Pangaribuan said it was considering a counter suit against Walhi.

“What is important is that the allegation on pollution cannot be proven,” he said.

Newmont had previously filed a counter suit in June against Walhi for $100,000 in damages, which was also rejected by the court on Tuesday.

Last year Denver-based Newmont settled a civil case without admitting wrongdoing and agreed to pay $30 million to an environmental foundation in North Sulawesi.

Writing by Fitri Wulandari; Editing by Grant McCool