In response to pollution complaints, a coal plant in Indonesia offered soap and mops

Environment officials and representatives of the Pacitan coal-fired power plant offer different explanations about what caused a surge in pollution last October.

Village leaders in Sumberejo, East Java, once had plans to entice travelers to their coastal town. Tourist facilities were planned for Ndaki Beach where the waves of the Indian Ocean crash upon this Indonesian island. Nearby Bawur Beach was also seen as having tourism potential.

Now, locals say, the construction of a 630-megawatt coal-fired power plant has killed these development aspirations: Bawur Beach, just west of the plant, is blocked by the facility, while Ndaki Beach has changed dramatically.

“We had a beautiful beach at Ndaki, but because of the power plant, the waves got focused towards one point at the beach and now we have erosion there,” Suyono, a community leader from Sumberejo told Mongabay-Indonesia.

“People in our village complain about dust from the power plant getting into their houses,” added Suyono, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “The river is also polluted because the power plant has no waste management system in place. We used to have many baby fish [in the river], now not anymore.”

Tumardi, a village leader from nearby Sukorejo, voiced similar views when contacted separately by Mongabay-Indonesia. “The floors become blackish, you could really see it,” he said. “Villagers reported this to the village leadership, and then I conveyed it to the power plant. During (rainy) seasons like now, there tend to be no complaints. [But] in the dry seasons, there is so much dust. Those coal heaps in their stockpile, when the southern wind comes, they’d blow the dust from the pile all over.”

In October 2016, representatives from the Pacitan coal-fired power plant agreed to meet with local leaders in the nearby Sukorejo village hall to respond to complaints. Tumardi, Suyono and other community leaders were present, as were the heads of the Sudimoro subdistrict’s government, police force and military.

They usually give us explanations, or raise our hopes, but these hopes are never realised. So, it’s like they’re feeding false hope to the people of Sumberejo and Sukorejo.

Suyono, community leader, Sumberejo

It wasn’t the first such meeting – several similar gatherings have been organized since construction for the plant began in 2007. In Suyono’s opinion, when it comes to handling complaints from the surrounding communities, the plant’s management has produced more talk than action.

“They usually give us explanations, or raise our hopes, but these hopes are never realised. So, it’s like they’re feeding false hope to the people of Sumberejo and Sukorejo,” Suyono said.

A few days after the meeting in October, the Pacitan Power Plant delivered cleaning supplies for the villagers, symbolically received by the village’s leadership at the lobby of Sudimoro’s subdistrict office. “So the villagers wouldn’t be too angry, they sent packages in plastic bags containing, among other things, face masks, dairy creamer, soap and mopping equipment,” Suyono said.

Community relations

The relationship between the Pacitan Power Plant and the surrounding communities has always been rocky, starting from the time when the company was buying land for the facility.

The project’s location is difficult to access, tucked between a steep hill and the fierce waves of the Indian Ocean, but the company carried on with their plans. The village road leading to the power plant has been badly damaged by heavy vehicles going back and forth to the facility. Two years ago, people from Sumberejo blocked the road to protest what they claim are unfulfilled promises from the company to maintain it.

“It was really bad before the construction project was completed. Walls of houses were cracked, the road was destroyed due to over-tonnage,” Suyono said. “Initially, the power plant promised to pave the roads around the plant with asphalt. [But] only about a third has been done.”

If there had been no protests, Suyono said, he doubts any paving would have been done at all. He said the company promised to pave the complete length of the road, but this is a claim villagers have had a hard time pursuing.  “We made a little mistake — we didn’t make the agreement written on paper. [The promise] was only given verbally,” Suyono said.

This has made it difficult for them to ask the plant to improve and maintain the road. Moreover, added Suyono, the plant frequently brings in new managers. The new officials are not in the know about what the old officials had agreed on with the communities.

“The new officials often said that they know nothing about any agreement. This makes it difficult for us,” he said.

“You Are Entering A National Vital Object Area,” announces a sign at the main gate of the power plant.

Despite discontent from locals, the plant has always enjoyed government support. It was built in accordance with a 2006 presidential decree that aimed to reduce Indonesia’s dependence on oil, largely by increasing the use of coal for energy generation from 15.7 per cent to more than 33 per cent.

The plan called for 10,000 megawatts of new power plants to be built by 2009, among them the 630-megawatt facility at Pacitan.

In 2007, the cornerstone for the project was laid by then-Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Purnomo Yusgiantoro. Operations and maintenance of the Pacitan power plant is managed by PT Jawa Bali Power Plant Business Unit Operations & Maintenance Services, a subsidiary of government-owned electric company PLN.

Searching for the truth about coal dust

In October, Mongabay-Indonesia visited the plant to meet with Priyono, the facility’s administrative manager. After leaving IDs at the security post, we were ushered into the first building to meet Priyono.

At a big table with bottles of mineral water and several jars of snacks, Priyanto received us warmly — until we asked for permission to record the conversation.

At that point, he became tense, saying he had agreed to a chat, not a news interview. He left the room, saying he needed to confer with his superiors. When he returned, he suggested we send an official letter. We had to leave the facility.

On Dec. 2, Mongabay-Indonesia was finally able to speak to the plant’s General Manager, Ardi Nugroho, to hear the company’s response to the complaints made by community members.

Nugroho did not deny that there had been a high level of dust and pollution in October; he attributed it to a temporary shortage of high-quality coal. “At that time we were in a coal crisis,” he said. “The Pacitan power plant had to operate anyhow, so we had to use ‘low-rank’ coal. When you have low-rank coal, it is dusty.”

“That happened for only three to four days,” Nugroho added. “And then [we] requested that PLN send us coal with better caloric content so that there would be less dust.”

The plant also took other preventative measures like spraying the coal with water, he said. “We announced this during the recent meeting with the communities,” he added, referring to the October meeting.

In October, Mongabay-Indonesia met with Andi Faliandra, head of the environment ministry’s Pacitan office. Faliandra, who said his office keeps a strictly neutral stance regarding the the communities’ concerns over the Pacitan Power Plant’s pollution, gave a different explanation for the noticeable upsurge in pollution last October.

Faliandra said he has learned from reports that the power plant’s machinery sometimes breaks down. When this happens, there is more dust than usual. “Like what happened last October 3, it was mentioned in my report,” he said. “There was damage in transporting the coal to the incinerator. We’re always informed when there are mechanical damages at the power plant.”

Every complaint from the communities is cross-checked against reports from the power plant, so the ministry can determine whether complaints correspond with mechanical problems at the plant. “We check on them,” Faliandra said. “Our staff would immediately pay them a visit. They did have damages at that time. And then we asked them what they will do about it. Are they making an effort? If we don’t see that, I’ll reprimand them.”

Missing fish?

Nugroho said he understood that the area surrounding the plant is a habitat for crustaceans, long a part of the local diet. “This is a bit of a dilemma, he said. “There are indeed a lot of lobsters around the power plant, and there are still a few fishermen catching shrimp around here. Our concern is that it is unsafe because it’s where our barges go in and out. We have conveyed this concern to the fishermen.”

Moreover, Nugroho said local fishermen catch not only large shrimp but also small ones, which are legally protected. “The big ones are allowed, [but catching] the small ones will impact the environment,” he said. “We have discussed this.”

Regarding compensation for marine fishermen, whose yields have diminished since the plant was built, Nugroho said company takes the CSR (corporate social responsibility) route.

When construction began, fishermen asked the power plant for compensation. “As far as I can remember, yes we have done that,” Nugroho said. “We have provided CSR aid. I can’t remember the specifics of the content.” For more details, Nugroho suggested contacting Priyono, the administrative manager who previously refused to give an interview on the record.

Nugroho said the power plant has also provided various forms of community aid, such as support for cultural activities, donating livestock for economic stimulus projects, donating translated copies of the Koran to support the villages’ religious life, and tree-planting. “During the Environmental Day, we built garbage containers, [and] supported sea turtle conservation. We released several hundred baby turtles,” he said.

“Our cooling system is built in a way so that there would be no sea turtles trapped in, that’s the hope. But we have discussed with the KLH (Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment), that sea turtles are endangered animals, we have to protect them, we have to breed them, we are cooperating with the KLH and the sea turtle conservation centers,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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