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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

when i asked ness why he didn't simply flee Indonesia, he said he couldn't fathom "going through life as a fugitive, having people think you've done something wrong." But beyond the bravado it was clear, too, that his life was in Indonesia now; he felt at home here, eating curries with his fingers and praying at the mosque, a single tall white figure in a sea of skullcapped faithful. He hadn't lived in America for 28 years, and what he'd left behind was not the stuff of nostalgia.

Born in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, in 1949, a couple years after his adolescent sister died, Ness grew up in a farmhouse with no plumbing; raising livestock was a hard business at the prairie's northern edge, and to earn extra cash Ness' father worked the grain elevators in Duluth, 250 miles away. Rick lent a hand as soon as he could, nursing orphan lambs at age six, and rising in the frigid winter darkness to feed the animals. In high school he fibbed about his age so he could drive bulldozers to earn college tuition.

In the early 1970s, he completed a two-year mechanics' program at Moorhead Technical College and married classmate Darlene Kroshus. Caterpillar hired him to fix generators on Great Lakes ships; he was a cog in a greasy rust-belt moil, the grind compounded by the icy, steel-gray winters. The constant travel strained his marriage, but in July 1975 Darlene gave birth to Eric, their first child. Soon after, Ness endured a white-knuckle ride on an ore carrier called the Arthur M. Anderson, in the same storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. As waves crashed over the bridge he wondered if he'd ever see his baby again. "This is no way to live a life," he decided.

So Caterpillar wangled him a job teaching mechanics at Moorhead. Soon after, Eric was diagnosed with a potentially fatal clogged bronchial tube. The Nesses stood vigil at the Mayo Clinic's pediatric surgery ward while doctors cut through the baby's chest, replumbing his aorta. Eric survived, but the family was manacled by the hospital bills. Ness took on a second job fixing trucks in Fargo, but despite 14-hour days was barely breaking even.

Then in 1979, a headhunter rang: Son, how'd you like to help train mechanics at the Freeport mine in the Papuan jungle? It hardly mattered where that was. By now, they'd had another baby. "If you want to know why the hell a Minnesota flatland farm boy would go to Indonesia," he says, "there you have it."

Phoenix-based Freeport McMoRan's operation was an industrial Xanadu in a place where the global economy had crash-landed in the middle of the Stone Age. It was beautiful and rugged, a land of body paint, grass skirts, and grinding poverty. The first time Darlene took out the trash, half a dozen locals approached to pick through it. "It startled me so that I just handed the bag to them and ran back into the house," she says. Darlene struggled to adjust, and the marriage deteriorated; in 1986 she delivered a baby whose race made it plain that Ness wasn't the father. Ness welcomed the child into the family as his own. "This really is an indication of the type of man Rick is," Darlene told me.

Other expats couldn't wait to leave the jungle, but Ness persevered, and within five years was second in command at the Freeport mine. Soon, a company geologist discovered Grasberg, which would turn out to be the world's largest copper and gold deposit. The only catch was that the ore sat at 14,000 feet, in a landscape so forbidding that trucks had to be hauled up piece by piece via cable car. Freeport turned to Ness to coordinate the logistics. "It took three, four months for supplies to arrive," he recalls. "You had 150,000 items in inventory just to keep the place going—everything from machine parts to coffins in case someone got killed. And contraceptives." Ness spent more than 15 years with Freeport, which promoted him to vice president and sent him to Harvard Business School; he joined competitor Newmont in 1998.

That Ness might not have been aware of the dark side of Freeport's presence in Papua is hard to imagine; yet somehow, he can almost convince you that it's so. "The mine dramatically changed the economy and lifestyle of the area," he says without irony, "which is nice to see."

In fact, at the time Freeport broke ground in West Papua—then known as Irian Jaya—the former Dutch colony was not even part of Indonesia. Dictator Suharto, with whom the company cultivated a cozy relationship, simply granted Freeport permission to operate there. The mine soon became Indonesia's biggest income source, helping Suharto colonize West Papua. It also destroyed a sacred mountain, provoking tribes to take up bows and arrows against the foreigners. The company maintained a powerful security force, and recently admitted to channeling millions to the thuggish Indonesian military, which between 1974 and 1997 killed nearly 200 people in the mine's vicinity, according to Chris Ballard of the Australian National University. Soldiers also allegedly raped and tortured scores, and sometimes shot natives just for garbage picking.

Nonetheless, Ness, who worked for Freeport from 1979 to 1996, remembers warm relations with the locals. "They didn't have much, but what they did have they were willing to share with you," he says. His kids traded salt for bows and arrows, and attended feasts where men in headdresses grilled pigs in huge open pits.

Ness never supervised security, but as logistics chief he had to deal with the military, which routinely used company helicopters and trucks; sources including Yale Law School's International Human Rights Clinic have reported that on several occasions in the 1990s soldiers tortured Amungme natives in company shipping containers. Ness, who was based in Jakarta by then, says he can't recall these allegations and that he wasn't aware of any abuses. "I'm trying to remember 10 years ago. I don't know that there were any real issues. [The soldiers] ate at our mess hall, but there weren't many troops."

Freeport defenders argue that the company can't be held responsible for an army it doesn't control. But Ed McWilliams, who was a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, calls the company "a willing accomplice" to the government's crimes. "Freeport is a dirty organization," he says. "You have to wonder about the motivations of people who continue to work there."

one weekend in jakarta, Ness invites me over for Sunday lunch. His house is decorated with statues from Papua and paintings of village life. Nova's son from a previous marriage studies in the kitchen, amid the fragrance of baked chicken and apple pie. In the living room Nova introduces me to two teenage girls in head scarves, perched awkwardly on the edge of the overstuffed couch. "The girls just happened to stop by," she says. "They're some of the students whose school fees we pay."

Ness, who has twice been to Mecca, says it was Islam's mandate to help the poor, and the devotion of his Muslim colleagues, that first attracted him to the faith. In the early 1990s, he resolved to simultaneously study the Bible, the Koran, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. On weekends, he rode his Harley to the house of one of Indonesia's top religious scholars, who tutored him. "We both liked coffee and cigarettes, so we got on well." A decade after converting, he still gets tongue-tied about his beliefs, afraid to offend. "Most of it's similar to the Bible," he says. "The God is the same. The Bible's got the basics, but the way of life is more described in the Koran."

When he met Nova, he recalls, "she was a single mother. The difference between her income and mine—it was huge. But she would spend a certain percentage of her income to take care of orphans." These days, he says, the family's donations significantly exceed the 2.5 percent of income called for in the Koran.

"We did this long before the Buyat case," Ness adds. "The point is, if this is how we treat people we don't even know, why would we treat our neighbors at the mine any different? Why would we pollute the bay? Does that make sense?"

I wish I could answer that—or at least find some way to bridge the chasm separating Ness' version of events and my own observations. Ness won't yield one iota in his conviction that both Freeport and Newmont are model companies, and that the Buyat mine has been the target of a groundless smear campaign. When I ask if he has any regrets, he simply reiterates his disbelief at the government's charges. "I never expected that we'd end up with something like this," he says. "This is beyond comprehension." He remains on Newmont's payroll, charged with the sole responsibility of winning the Buyat case—a job he has attacked with the same tenacity that helped him wring gold from the wilderness. He loved running mines, he says. "I enjoy building things. The thing is, you're creating jobs for people who need them."

That much is certain about Ness. He likes building things, and had he begun his career fixing medical equipment, he'd probably be running hospitals. Instead, fate sent him to the gold fields, where in order to create, you must destroy. He may have truly believed Newmont's scientists when they said dumping waste into the bay was safe—the controversial pipe had already been built when he took over—though it's hard to imagine that, in all those years of loyally defending his employer, he never harbored a single doubt.

"The truth is he was only doing what Newmont expected of him," says Sandra Ainsworth, a former company employee who says she was fired after she blew the whistle on pollution at a Nevada mine. "But at some point people in those kinds of positions have to step up for what they know is right."

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