Following Australia’s biggest-ever oil spill, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert flew a plane over the Montara oil field, 250 kilometres off Australia’s Northwest coast. From there she saw massive oil slick, reaching past the horizon.
At the same time, reports of sudden illnesses, dead fish and dolphins, and dying seaweed emerged in West Timor, Indonesia.
Now, eight years later, people in West Timor are still suffering from the spill, and are still seeking justice.
Nicole Curby caught up with filmmaker Jane Hammond, whose new documentary, A Crude Injustice tells their story.
In 2009, thousands of barrels of oil spilled from a well in Australian waters. For 74 days, oil poured into the ocean.
Spreading into Indonesian waters, the oil unleashed a devastating impact on the marine environment, destroying the livelihoods of seaweed farmers and fishers in Indonesian’s West Timor.
Oil company, PTTEP denies the oil reached the islands of West Timor, claiming they’re not responsible for how people there are suffering.
But from the start, journalist and filmmaker Jane Hammond could see that there was more to the story.
“One of the things that struck me right from the start was that the company was saying this was happening in an area that was an underwater desert, I think was the term they used at the time,” Hammond stated.
“Now being involved in environmental issues and having a love of the ocean, and knowing about environmental science, I knew that just wasn’t the case. That this was really a rich and diverse sort of environment. And this immediately triggered my interest about what aren’t they telling us and why,” she said.
Now, eight years later, people in West Timor are still reeling from the impacts of the spill.
Ferdi Tanoni is a small business man from Kupang, West Timor. He’s observed the impacts of the spill on local people, and he’s tenaciously campaigning for justice to be served.
“This is not just an environmental issue,” Tanoni stated. “Even more importantly, it is a humanitarian problem. More than 100,000 people from poor coastal communities are losing their livelihoods due to this pollution.”
People in West Timor are dealing with a double poison. There’s the oil itself, and then there’s the oil dispersants that the Australian Marine Safety Authority released into the water following the spill.
Those dispersants break up the vast oil slick into smaller particles, but they don’t remove the oil. And they carry toxic chemicals, which are suspected to have drastic health impacts.
“I have data that over 25 people died,” Tanoni said. “Fishermen and seaweed farmers who are in daily contact with the sea suddenly died, and others have very strange diseases. Strange diseases. Itching, vomiting, bleeding to death.”
On top of that, since the oil spill in 2009, West Timorese seaweed started to die. What had recently become a lucrative earner suddenly dried up.
“Before 2009, people in West Timor called seaweed “green gold.” Because the price of seaweed was around 22 thousand to 25 thousand rupiah per kilogram ($US2 per kilogram). So they said it was green gold,” Tanoni explained.
Green gold - or seaweed- was giving people a path out of poverty. For the first time, there was enough money to go to university.
But after the oil spill, all that suddenly came to an end.
Jane says it was that injustice that pushed her to make the film.
“One of the main things that really concerned me was that kids had been taken out of school,” She recalls.
“And this as a former teacher and as a mother of 3 kids, this really disturbed me. To see a generation missing out on education because their parents couldn’t afford it, because of an oil spill that wasn’t of their making, seemed just so unfair that I thought that Australian public should know more about this. So I set about making the film to tell the Australian people what the Australian oil industry and our government had been complicit in,” Hammond stated.
Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert agrees that her government bears a responsibility to those suffering because of the spill.
“The Australian Government was the regulator and was the body that oversaw the regulatory process, and it’s obviously the country that gave out the permits, and the well was in Australian waters, so we think the Australian government has a role to play.”
Siewert continued, “The fair and just thing is that these people are compensated for what they have lost.”
In 2016, more than fifteen thousand people from West Timor launched a class action in Australian courts. They’re seeking over $AU200 million in compensation for what they’ve lost.
But a court ruling is likely to be years away. In the meantime, Jane hopes that her film, A Crude Injustice, can help push the company towards a settlement.
“We’re putting pressure on our foreign minister to bring people to the table and start to organize a settlement,” Hammond said.
“So that the people who’s lives have been impacted don’t have to wait another 7 years, their kids can start going to school fairly soon if they money comes though. But so far the company hasn’t paid a cent in compensation to these people.”