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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 3:00 AM EDT

Pictures have played an enormous role in the Buyat controversy; grisly and haunting—a woman with a massive protrusion in her belly, a gaunt boy who I'm told has leukemia—they are pasted on placards, printed in Jakarta newspapers, and displayed by Newmont's critics at every opportunity. Ness inoculated me to this portfolio of horrors at our first meeting, claiming some of the alleged victims weren't even from the area. Then, when I interviewed relief workers and local doctors, they suggested that I go see for myself—not in Buyat Beach, whose sick families had already left, but in Buyat Village, located between the beach and the mine. On a map, I noticed that it was just off a road that Ness and I had driven down repeatedly on our detailed tour of the area. He'd never mentioned the town.

Buyat Village is a neat settlement of small, boxy homes lining leafy paths. Children play on the road, and men smoke clove cigarettes in the shade. Looming above them is the now-closed mine, already largely reclaimed by the jungle.

In addition to the arsenic in the bay, Newmont has admitted that its mine discharged some 17 tons of mercury—which can cause learning disabilities at very low doses—into the air from 1996 to 2001. "That's like having 15 to 20 coal-fired power plants in your back yard," says Glenn Miller, a mercury expert at the University of Nevada. (Newmont argues that the amount of mercury it emitted wasn't a health risk.) Wells in Buyat Village have also shown arsenic concentrations up to six times the Indonesian drinking water standard, according to a 2004 government study, which notes that tests Newmont conducted before opening the mine found no arsenic.

Once word about my presence gets out, it seems as if almost every family in Buyat Village has a story to tell. Nurbaya Mokoagow, a shy 32-year-old, pulls up her yellow T-shirt to show me a tumor on her breast. Oni Tungkagi, 30, exposes one in her armpit. Ideng Tungkagi, a fortysomething shopkeeper, rolls a marble-sized growth along her jawbone and displays scars on her neck where previous ones have erupted. "The doctor told me it was cancer," she says. "But I have no money to treat it." Sumina Modeong, 25, casually mentions that when she was three months pregnant, a doctor removed a tennis-ball-sized lump from her breast. On her lap sits the daughter born of that pregnancy. Her head is half bald and her left ear is deformed, sealed over. She is three years old but has barely grown or learned to speak.

"There are a lot of sick people here," Faisal Paputungan, a village elder, tells me. (Relief workers have counted 367 people—about 10 percent of the population—with tumors, skin diseases, headaches, and other complaints similar to those found in Buyat Beach.) "We're afraid that the effects will be more visible in 10 years. We know there's pollution in the fish, in the water we drink and bathe in, but there's nowhere for us to go." He says they don't want money from Newmont. "We just want them to clean the environment and take care of our health."

Locals tell me that in the weeks after baby Andini's death, at a time when journalists were flocking to Buyat Bay, a white bus quietly carried a couple dozen people from the area to the provincial capital of Manado, where their tumors were removed. The surgery was performed not at the hospital (where it might have caused a commotion among the gossipy locals) but in a university classroom, on wooden desks. The head surgeon, Dr. Tangel Frans, a member of the university's medical department, confirms that he and other doctors operated on the villagers in the classroom; he says he has no idea who paid for the procedures or who sent the bus. The mysterious expedition took place just before international researchers were due in the area to investigate Newmont's health effects.

Photo by David Case

it's a long way from buyat village to Rick and Nova Ness' sprawling ranch-style house in a swank Jakarta neighborhood. Once you pass the police post around the corner (protecting the compound of former president B. J. Habibie), you enter a haven of lush palms and ficuses, twittering birds, and humming air conditioners. Whitewashed houses with terra-cotta roofs soar above security walls topped with spiked bars. Like any wealthy family in Indonesia, the Nesses have a staff of cooks and cleaners; a chauffeur shuttles Rick around the teeming city in a black Mercedes.

Yet Ness doesn't seem quite at home among the trappings of comfort. Before Buyat, his life was a hard slog, and the impact is visible in his furrowed face. The backyard pool appears unused; the closest he gets to relaxation is revving up his purple Harley at sunrise on Sunday and rumbling out of the sleeping city into the volcanic peaks of Java. "I enjoy riding," he says. "It clears the mind."

In the days after the Buyat case broke, when bodyguards bearing Kalashnikovs were posted in Ness' garage and newspapers incessantly ran pictures of baby Andini, there were no Harley rides. Instead, Ness hunkered down with his advisers to figure out the best response. What emerged was probably one of the most aggressive and effective PR campaigns ever orchestrated in the developing world.

Part of the offensive involved textbook crisis communication. Ness did media interviews and spoke before sympathetic audiences such as the American Chamber of Commerce. He mocked the government's evidence as "junk science." He extolled studies that he said supported the company's argument—one conducted by the Australian lab csiro (and funded by Newmont), and another by researchers from the World Health Organization and Japan's National Institute for Minamata Disease. (See "Data Mining.")

Meanwhile, Newmont threw its full legal weight at the critics, pouncing, for example, on biologist Rignolda Djamaludin after he was quoted as saying that the villagers suffered from Minamata disease (an acute form of mercury poisoning that has not been found in Buyat). A court ordered Djamaludin to pay Newmont $750,000. More recently Ness has also sued the New York Times, which he accuses of inflaming the controversy with a 2004 story on Buyat Bay that he considers unbalanced; he wants $65 million in compensation.

Ness has also exploited Indonesia's well-earned reputation for corruption and intrigue. "Mining is a lucrative business," a U.S. diplomat told me, echoing the claim that the prosecution was a form of political blackmail. "There are a lot of people who would want to get their hands on Newmont's property." Nationalists in Indonesia have argued for expropriating foreign mines, and there have been attacks on some facilities. B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, told journalists last year that he was convinced Ness had been charged "without any evidence"; U.S. Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) wrote to the Indonesian government on Ness' behalf. Most notably, Ness has been the subject of dozens of sympathetic articles in outlets such as the Associated Press, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. In one breezy profile, an AP reporter quoted Ness at length, noting that he was "shocked when he first learned that his company was accused of sickening Indonesian villagers. 'We were not prepared to react to something that silly.'" Likewise, the Journal ran an op-ed hailing Newmont as "an economic savior" in Indonesia and arguing that the case "is regarded as part of an overall indictment by environmental groups against the mining industry in general." Tracking Ness' talking points, the piece relied on interviews with Ibrahim and the same Newmont supporters I met in Buyat Beach, conducted through a Newmont translator; there were no quotes from the company's critics. Jonathon Burns, one of two coauthors, was a 21-year-old Journal intern from Missouri who'd never been to Indonesia. "I wrote the majority of the piece," he told me, "but because my credentials weren't good," Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore co-signed it.

Before President George W. Bush visited Indonesia in November 2006, Agence France-Presse reported that Ness' case had "cast a shadow" on the president's trip. While traveling with Bush, Thomas Donohue, the powerful president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told journalists that Ness' case "will most definitely have an impact on the foreign investment climate in Indonesia."

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