Newmont executive awaits verdict

An American with Newmont Mining Co. will know if he will be thrown in jail for allegedly sickening Indonesian villagers by dumping mercury and arsenic-laced waste into a bay. Both investors and environmentalists are very interested in issue of suit.

Richard Ness, 57, insists is he is innocent but has steered clear of predicting an outcome.

"I'm not clairvoyant," said Ness, who faces a maximum 10 years in prison and a US$60,000 (EUR44,000) fine if found guilty. "But I'm positive there has never been any pollution and I think most people are starting to realize that."

He says evidence presented during his 20-month criminal trial proved that waste rock dumped into the water by Newmont's now-defunct mine on Sulawesi island did not exceed government standards or cause villagers to develop skin disorders or other illnesses, as claimed.

The case could have far-reaching implications.

Foreign investors say legal uncertainties add to the risks of doing business in Indonesia, which boasts some of the world's largest gold, tin, copper and nickel deposits but is also considered among the most corrupt nations.

"A guilty verdict would of course affect the investment climate," said Witoro Soelarno of Indonesia's energy and mineral resources department, noting that foreign companies have all-but abandoned the mining sector since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

"We would have to work ever harder to lure them back," he said, pointing also to concerns about a draft mining bill that would require companies to work with regional authorities instead of the central government.

Environmentalists say the trial offers the government - which coddled investors under ex-President Suharto's 32-year dictatorship - an opportunity to hold a multinational corporation accountable for pollution at a time when the nation's rich and unique ecosystems are rapidly deteriorating.

"Newmont has to pay for what they've done," said Raja Siregar, from the local conservation group Walhi, which said villagers living near the exploration site have complained of skin disease, lumps and dizziness.

The group said follow-up research should be conducted for up to 30 years to make sure they are not suffering from body arsenic accumulation.

Newmont, the world's largest gold producer, began operations in Sulawesi in 1996, but the Denver, Colorado-based company stopped mining in 2004 after extracting all the gold and ore it could.

Though Indonesia accused it of violating environmental laws by dumping millions of tons of pollutants into Buyat Bay, conflicting test results have complicated the case.

A police report showed that mercury and arsenic levels were well beyond national standards, but tests by the World Health Organization, government agencies and several independent groups found that pollutants in the water were within normal limits.

Despite claims of serious illnesses, evidence presented to the Manado District Court was limited to a few villagers complaining of itchiness.

Ness, president director of Newmont's local subsidiary, said a guilty ruling would send a "frightening message" to foreign investors, and his own company last month indicated it may reconsider future investments if the court ruled against the Ada, Minnesota, native.

He vowed to immediately appeal if convicted.

Newmont could be fined another US$100,000 (EUR73,500) if it is judged guilty on criminal charges in a separate verdict Tuesday.

Last year, Newmont reached a US$30 million out-of-court settlement with Indonesia's government to defuse a separate civil suit over alleged toxic pollution in Buyat Bay, some 2,080 kilometers (1,300 miles) northeast of Jakarta.

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