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.

Photo: Alex Tehrani

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Rick Ness doesn’t have a moment to spare. As we rip through the blue equatorial water, he is oblivious to the engine’s roar, the hot, salty wind, the stomach-turning chop. “While we have the time,” he hollers, ruddy strands of hair flying about like palm fronds in a typhoon, “why not ask Jerry here about the month he spent in a Jakarta jail?”

Jerry Kojansow doesn’t need much prompting. “We were scared,” the 36-year-old marine biologist shouts. Violent criminals and suspected terrorists packed the cells. “The guards played tricks with our heads,” he recalls; at one point they locked him in a room that slowly filled with smoke. “We realized they can do anything to us.”

No matter how many times Ness has heard it, he seems rapt by the testimonial, which encapsulates his own looming nightmare. While medical issues helped Ness stay out of the slammer when Kojansow and five other Newmont Mining employees were locked up in 2004, he now faces charges that could result in a 10-year sentence. A government prosecutor claims that as president of Newmont Minahasa Raya, an Indonesian subsidiary of the Denver-based gold-mining giant, he was responsible for polluting a pristine bay with millions of tons of mine waste that some have blamed for a rash of deaths and illnesses.

But if bringing criminal charges against a powerful American was a bold step for Indonesia, Ness responded with equal nerve. Since 2004, he has waged a full-time PR and legal campaign to clear his name, with Newmont backing him up at a burn rate of up to $1 million a month. Other U.S. executives have joined in, as has the Bush administration. Together, their arguments have amounted to a blunt message to Indonesia and other developing nations: Send expat executives to jail, and expect foreign investment to evaporate.

Paradoxically, perhaps the most effective argument for the exonerate-Rick-Ness campaign is Ness himself. An affable, 57-year-old Midwesterner, he’s tried hard to assimilate here, converting to Islam, marrying an Indonesian woman, and paying to send hundreds of poor children to school. He commands enormous sympathy from almost everyone he knows, including many reporters who have covered his story, resulting in a slew of friendly articles in the world press. He has a 25-year history with controversial mines; before Newmont, he worked at Freeport McMoRan’s operation in Papua, notorious for its environmental devastation and its collaboration with a brutal military. Yet he insists, with genuine conviction, that no abuses have ever taken place under his watch. I’ve come along on this private tour of the alleged crime scene—Buyat Bay, a cove notched into Sulawesi, the world’s 11th largest island—to try to reconcile the two faces of Rick Ness. And it’s a testament to the man’s persuasive charm that I’ve actually agreed to go diving here, right next to Newmont’s underwater waste heap.

Tall and pale pink, with a slight paunch, Ness has blue eyes creased into a permanent squint. Normally a jeans-and-oxford-cloth man, on this excursion he wears black loafers, pressed gray chinos, and a light-blue button-down shirt. He holds forth with the enthusiasm of a Fuller Brush salesman, tempered by an undertow of fear and exhaustion. “Why, the whole thing is an elaborate hoax!” he exclaims. “There was no pollution and nobody got sick. It’s as simple as that.” Over and over, he insists that both he and Newmont are victims of Indonesian politics. “Sometimes,” he tells me at one point, breaking into tears, “I don’t know if we’re the football or the goalpost.”

Newmont doesn’t deny piping 5 million tons of heavy-metal-laden mine waste into Buyat Bay. “But it was as clean as sand,” Ness insists; the only impact “was smothering seafloor worms.” He claims people familiar with the facts see things his way. “The local government has been promoting the bay as the next undiscovered dive spot. Now why in the world would they do that if it was polluted?” He smiles, revealing a row of tobacco-stained teeth and a single gold incisor.

in 1994, newmont mining—then a midsize Nevada gold producer striving to become a global leader—broke ground in the mountains above Buyat Bay. Over the mine’s eight years in operation, the company extracted $672 million worth of gold from its $200 million investment. Locals, too, hoped for a payoff. In a place where zinc-roofed huts cram every inhabitable flatland, where most survive on what fishermen in flimsy outriggers can haul from the sea, jobs paying a few dollars a day seemed a godsend.

To dispose of its waste, Newmont built a pipe that channeled the waste to the bottom of Buyat Bay; it assured residents that the fish would be fine. But just months after the mine opened, villagers began complaining that schools of silvery carcasses were washing up on the beach, putrid and stiff. On the fish they caught, the men found strange tumors that oozed an oily black goop under their fillet knives. Villagers took the dead fish to the local university (one of many beneficiaries of Newmont’s largesse), which refused to test them. At one point, the pipe burst, spewing waste into shallow water. Villagers protested, occupying Newmont’s office for several hours. The mine’s community outreach workers—smart men with college educations—told the villagers the fish were safe, and so they ate them.

For a while, Indonesia’s U.S.-backed strongman, Suharto, kept a lid on the controversy. But things got tougher for Newmont after Suharto was toppled in 1998. The newly empowered environment ministry demanded that the company abide by hazardous-waste regulations and produce an environmental risk assessment. Neither mandate was fulfilled to regulators’ satisfaction, but with the country reeling from the Asian financial crisis, the government was not inclined to push the matter.

On these key events, accounts from intellectuals, the Indonesian government, and news stories largely dovetailed. But in his Jakarta high-rise office, Ness told me a markedly different story. He said the mine ran smoothly and the villagers never complained about pollution or their health. He blamed the protests on outside activists. Fish kills in the bay, he said, were caused by locals dousing the reefs with cyanide to speed up their harvest—a common tactic in Indonesia. In short, he says, no one except “antimining, antiglobalization groups” had a gripe with Newmont—until 2004.

In July of that year, a five-month-old girl named Andini died in the quiet fishing village of Buyat Beach. From birth, she had been small and sickly, with a grotesque scaly rash covering her body. Photos circulated of the baby in her last days—tiny, chafed, and seemingly writhing in pain—and Indonesian reporters swarmed Buyat Beach, broadcasting footage of residents with tumors, debilitating cramps, and severe headaches. Lab tests showed mercury levels in some villagers’ bodies that were triple the level the U.S. government considers safe, and police investigators found mercury and arsenic in the bay. (Newmont’s own analysis of the same water samples found them to be clean.)

Ness tirelessly defended his company, claiming the residents suffered from hygiene-related ailments common in remote villages, and he produced doctors willing to vouch for this. But in a nation rife with distrust of multinationals in general, and Americans in particular, his denials mattered little. Ness’ name became iconic in the manner of Ken Lay’s. When we traveled to Buyat last year, he was in the midst of defending himself in a 21-month trial focusing on pollution charges. (The indictment skirted the question of health effects, and Newmont has always maintained that there are none.) On April 24, 2007, the day of Newmont’s annual shareholder meeting and a week after the company offered to sell $325 million in shares to the Indonesian government, the provincial court acquitted Ness of all charges. “I was amazed at how thoroughly the judges sided with us,” Ness says. “It was a slam dunk.” But in June, the Indonesian prosecutor appealed the case to the country’s Supreme Court, and Ness prepared to do battle again.

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.”

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.”

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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We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with the Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

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