Villagers in Sumatra blame a coal mine for cracks in their houses, and their community

Residents of Padang Birau village in Indonesia’s Jambi province say a nearby coal mine has led to social and environmental problems, and is disrupting their lives.

It’s been more than two months since Rasid has felt safe sleeping in his bedroom. Ever since a crack appeared in the wall, he’s slept in his living room.

“I’m horrified of being in the room, I’m afraid it might collapse,” he says.

Four fractures mark the walls of his house, two of them running from top to bottom.

Rasid points to what he believes is the culprit: the vibratory roller that compacts the dirt road next to the house, often late into the night.

The roller is operated by PT Caritas Energi Indonesia (CEI) and PT Metalic Baru Sinergi (MBS), mining contractors for PT Karya Bumi Baratama (KBB), which since 1999 has held a 102-square-kilometer (39-square-mile) concession here in the Sarolangun district of Jambi province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

In late 2017, the company bought locals’ land to build a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) road connecting the mining site to a nearby highway. It also set up a coal stockpile about 500 meters, about a third of a mile, from a residential area.

Since the mine road opened, Rasid says he and his family have had trouble sleeping. The roller goes into action after each rain, leveling out the deep ruts left by the regular traffic of trucks carrying tons of coal. When the machine rumbles by, Rasid says, the zinc roof of his house clangs along with the vibrations. “When it’s at work, it feels like it’s tearing up the floor tiles,” Rasid says.

The work starts after sunset and sometimes goes on past midnight. “It sometimes rolls on in the afternoons too, but at night the pounding is extreme—the vibration is stronger. Especially if you have a toothache and that heavy equipment is at work, it makes you want to punch a wall,” he says. “We wait for it to stop, sometimes until 4 in the morning, then we can sleep.”

Rasid says company representatives have visited his house three times to see the cracking of the walls. However, to date, the company has not discussed any compensation.

“I built this house over five years, saving up little by little as a motorcycle taxi driver, but now this happens,” he says quietly.

Musyawamah is one of the residents who sold their land for the road. He and his brother received 336 million rupiah ($23,300) for an 800-square-meter plot, about a fifth of an acre, that they inherited from their parents. But with the new road built so close to his own house, Musyawamah has also started noticing cracks appear on his walls. Like Rasid, he also blames the contractors’ roller. His brother, Roni Paslah, has also seen cracks in his house’s foundation.

In the small community of Padang Birau, at least four homes have seen physical damage. All are located within 50 meters (165 feet) of the mine road.

Zulhitmi, one of the affected villagers, has asked the coal company to review the work schedule for the roller, especially during Friday afternoon prayers, and to turn off the vibrating function at night.

“In the daytime, if you want to amp it up 100 times, go ahead,” he says jokingly.

That the roller is the cause of the wall fractures “can’t be denied,” he says. “The road-building system is not in accordance with government standards. They heap up [the dirt] then flatten it, and still the road isn’t compact enough, especially for vehicles carrying 14, 16 or 40 tons. So of course they need constant maintenance.”

Ever since the coal [mining began], people here want to kill each other, stab each other, because of the money.

Wawan, resident

Zulhitmi has met with representatives from MBS and CEI. He says the companies reasoned that since they had only been for operating for two months at the time, there was an understandable need for improvement. Zulhitmi says he asked them to think long term.

“I told them … ‘You’ve prepared medical funds, so that means you’re expecting us to get sick. Don’t sacrifice the residents [at the expense of] the company — that’s wrong,’” he says, his voice rising. “Think long term, about how the company can run without people becoming ill and dying.”

River and air pollution

On March 9, the Indung River overflowed after a heavy rain. Black water inundated the yards in the village.

Wawan Susanto, a resident, suspects the water mixed with coal dissolved by the rain. He fears this coal mix could pollute wells and groundwater sources near the river.

Mongabay visited the location of a stockpile at the top of the Indung River. Heaps of coal extended dozens of meters. At the edge was a trench full of coal, emptying into a filtration pond. There were three of these filtration pools, filled with the same black water, flowing out into the Indung.

Suhardi Sohan, a manager at the Sarolangun district environment department, says he has already checked the stockpile filtration pools. He says the black water is caused by a lack of aluminum hydroxide and lime treatments.

“The results of laboratory tests meet the standards, but the murkiness is still a problem,” he says.

Treating the coal-water slurry, as the black sludge is known, is important not just for clearing up the water but also for achieving a neutral pH. “Too much aluminum hydroxide, and it becomes alkaline. Too much lime, and it becomes acidic,” Suhardi says.

Beyond the murky water, there’s also the issue of air pollution. Siswoyo lives at the intersection of the mine road and the highway. Every day, dozens of trucks loaded with coal pass in front of his house. The cargo is covered with tarpaulins, but this does little to stop coal dust from polluting the surrounding air.

Siswoyo’s daughter, Rini, has a history of asthma, and in the last few months has developed more frequent coughs and shortness of breath because of the coal dust, he says.

“At night, she has difficulty breathing,” he says of the 7-year-old. “It’s not possible to wear a mask every day. Why is it so hard to simply breathe?”

Conflict between residents

The presence of the coal mine has also caused social unrest, pitting those who support the mine against those who oppose it. Some residents, including the Gunung Kembang Village Cooperative, have contracts to transport coal from the mine.

“Ever since the coal [mining began], people here want to kill each other, stab each other, because of the money,” Wawan says.

The residents who support the company are those who live farther away, he adds. “They don’t get dust, don’t get the tremors, don’t get the noise. Of course they wouldn’t go against the company, since they profit.”

When the company at one point agreed not to haul coal during the day, the local contract holders protested. Wawan says some of them came to his house and challenged him to a fight. “If you shut down the mining activities, we will be ready to protect the company,” Wawan recalls them saying.

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

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