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Mr. Clean: A Gold Mining Exec Battles Pollution Charges in Indonesia

Rick Ness is spending a million a month to convince the world he's innocent of contaminating pristine waterways. Once you meet him, you'll want to believe him.

| Mon Sep. 10, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Most high-profile crime suspects cower behind their lawyers; Ness smothers journalists with attention. Our scuba trip was part of a five-day jaunt during which Ness introduced me to local witnesses and experts. He brought along his Indonesian wife, Nova—charming and sharp, 14 years his junior—and it would have been easy to think we were on a family outing were it not for the bodyguards trailing us.

Ness' most potent weapon is his avuncular personality, along with his penchant for random acts of selfless derring-do. Once, after several students were found murdered in a deep crater outside a mine, Ness, a trained emergency responder, volunteered to spare police the macabre and dangerous job of recovering their bodies. Another time, when a Filipino employee got his pelvis crushed in an accident, Ness chartered a jet without clearance from corporate headquarters or air traffic control and sent the man to Australia. "You didn't much care about the color of the passport or the skin," he says. "You did your damn best to save their lives. Maybe we dented the rules, but the guy's walking around with an artificial leg, which was better than sending him home the other way."

"If Rick Ness put a diving board at the end of a mine pit and told everyone, 'Okay, get up there and jump,' they'd do it," says David Francisco, a longtime colleague of Ness'. Which, presumably, is one reason I'm about to plunge into an alleged toxic waste site. The other is that Ness seems eager to come along. "I haven't been down there yet," he says. "But I hear it's great!"

The speedboat banks north, and we enter Buyat Bay—a half-moon of tropical Eden, a few miles wide, framed by vine-draped cliffs. The captain cuts the engine over a reef. The waste heap, Ness tells me, is a few hundred yards away. Then, just as I'm preparing to duck-step off the boat, he demurs. "I'll tell you what," he says to Kojansow, the marine biologist. "I haven't dived for five years. Why don't you give David a real good tour? I won't slow you down."

Forty-five feet down, I question my judgment. We see crocodile fish, mackerel, and sea cucumbers, and Kojansow snaps photos of me in front of brilliant anemones. But the coral looks dull and spent—nothing you'd promote to tourists—and some of it is coated by a loamy layer, like pillow stuffing. I grab a handful and it seeps through my fingers, forming a mushroom cloud in the water. Then I notice that Kojansow is wearing a full-body suit despite the tepid sea.

When we resurface, Ness is waiting, his hair conspicuously wet—from, he makes a point of telling me, taking a dip. "Did you enjoy it?" he asks.

Photo by David Case

Nearly a year after the mine closed in 2004, many villagers were still complaining of a variety of illnesses. So with TV cameras rolling, more than 65 teary-eyed families dismantled their homes, burning what they couldn't carry. They unearthed Andini's tiny cloth-shrouded corpse and carried her with them to Duminanga, a malarial outpost eight hours away, where relief workers helped them build barracks.

The dozen or so families that remain have close ties to Newmont, and many have collected stipends and giveaways from the company: a day's salary to attend Ness' trial, or a free outboard engine (which is needed to fish outside Buyat Bay). As I talk to villagers in a beach hut one morning, a dapper man in a leather skullcap strolls in. He introduces himself as Hadji Dahlan Ibrahim, a village chief. "The victims complain that they're bleeding from their vagina and anus," he says. "But it's normal. Maybe they were just having their period." He excoriates the activists who claimed the bay was polluted. "The local women were crying because they couldn't sell their fish at the market," he says. Arms akimbo, Ness chimes in, "You can tell he's not the kind of guy who's easily bought."

Later, Ness takes me to a nearby port, where we watch wiry men haul fish from the deep-sea vessels owned by Ibrahim. Newmont, I learn, is building a fish-freezing facility as an assistance project—a major boon to Ibrahim, who controls the local industry.

Ibrahim isn't the only beneficiary of Newmont's generosity. Within an hour of the mine, almost every government building bears a sign touting Newmont's support. According to a study of Batu Hijau, Newmont's other Indonesian mine, by Cornell anthropologist Marina Welker, the company uses development money to gain the loyalty of leaders, striving for autocratic control and routinely infiltrating environmental groups; she even watched executives convince children that mining waste was harmless "by letting them drink it and rub it on their faces."

The night we arrive in Buyat Beach, Ness promises that I'll see him eat fish directly from the bay. He organizes a beachside barbecue, a postcard of village harmony, with an open fire and a guitar sing-along. As we eat, a man tells me that the catch actually comes from Ibrahim's boats, which don't go near the bay. Ness doesn't flinch.

A week later, I meet Ness' nemesis, Deputy Minister of Environment Masnellyarti Hilman, in her Jakarta office. Hilman, who goes by Nellie, is among a handful of respected environmental technocrats on the ecologically devastated archipelago and she commands respect even from her adversaries. "She was a true believer doing what she thought was right," says one former Newmont official, who did not want his name used because he remains close to management. "She wasn't just another greedy official trying to jack the company." On Hilman's office wall is a photo of John F. Kennedy inscribed, "When power corrupts, poetry cleanses." In the 1990s Hilman won a State Department fellowship to the Colorado School of Mines, where she learned the importance of scientific rigor; every so often during our interview she brandishes cinder-block-sized tomes on mine-waste disposal.

When I tell her about my dive, Hilman is aghast. "You touched the sediment?" At least, she says, I have been exposed only once, and any arsenic I've absorbed will flush out of my body in a little more than a week. "It's okay," she says reassuringly. "But don't do it again."

Hilman isn't surprised that Ness has coaxed me to dive; she is in grudging awe of his skill with the media. The Financial Times, for example, quoted his favorite line in the indictment—that Newmont has "caused itchiness among villagers"—while giving short shrift to the other 71 pages of charges, including operating a mine without a dumping permit, and discharging waste that exceeded toxic standards by as much as a factor of 17. (Ness claims these charges result from the government misinterpreting Indonesian law.) Hilman shows me correspondence demonstrating that Ness, despite his insistence to the contrary, was aware of problems at the mine by 2000; she says the company has sought to exploit Indonesia's economic crisis to strong-arm the government into backing off. "We're not anti-investor," she says. "But big companies give a lot of money to our government, so some of them think they can do what they want."

Flipping open an engineering text, Hilman points to a passage that explains the heart of Newmont's predicament. Gold mines produce enormous amounts of waste (see "With This Ring"); dumping this waste at sea is controversial, but when doing so, experts agree that it must be placed in the cold, oxygen-depleted depths. However, Newmont's waste heap at Buyat sits in relatively warm water teeming with sea creatures that are the backbone of the aquatic food chain. Research published last year by Evan Edinger of Canada's Memorial University found that the waste on Buyat's seafloor had arsenic concentrations 16 times higher, and mercury levels 8 times higher, than those at which adverse environmental effects are frequently expected, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Edinger also found that, in contrast to Newmont's claims, a significant share of the waste was in a form that could enter the food chain, and that it had spread to within 350 feet of the beach.

Here's the rub: Independent scientists say another few miles of pipe would have put the waste over the continental shelf and into deep water, drastically reducing the chance for contamination. This would have cost around $15 million, according to Jim Kuipers, a Montana-based engineering consultant who has worked in the mining industry and now advises watchdog groups.

"The culture in mining is to save money wherever they can," says Dave Chambers, an engineer with Montana-based mining-watchdog group Center for Science in Public Participation. "Newmont took a risk and they got burned."

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