‘We are afraid’: Erin Brockovich pollutant linked to global electric car boom

Exclusive: Investigation uncovers evidence of contaminated air and water from one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines

A Guardian investigation into nickel mining and the electric vehicle industry has found evidence that a source of drinking water close to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines is contaminated with unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium (Cr6), the cancer-causing chemical more widely known for its role in the Erin Brockovich story and film.

The investigation also found evidence suggesting elevated levels of lung infections among people living close to the mine.

Recent years have seen a race between mining companies to gain control of the world’s largest nickel reserves in Indonesia.

Nickel, an essential component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, could bring transformational wealth to a country where Covid has pushed the number of people in poverty up to 10.19%.

Yet people living on the remote Obi Island, which has recently become home to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines, just want clean and safe water.

Unlike other minerals used to power EVs such as cobalt and lithium – which have been linked to environmental damage and human rights abuses –nickel’s supply chain has so far gone largely unscrutinised.

Map of Obi Island

The mining companies operational on Obi Island say their works pose no threat to local communities. Yet in the village of Kawasi, people are scared.

One villager, Richard*, says that since the mine arrived the water has become dangerous to drink.

“In the past, before there was a company, even though we lived without electricity, we were safe. Now we are afraid,” says Richard*. Water samples taken by the Guardian near Kawasi and tested at government-certified laboratories suggest high levels of contamination from hexavalent chromium (Cr6), a cancer-causing chemical.

The villagers also claim that since the mine arrived, people have been falling sick.

Children play on Kawasi beach as building work for a mining company port takes place along the shore.
Children play on Kawasi beach as building work for a mining company port takes place along the shore. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

The Guardian was told by the village midwife clinic of more than 900 cases of potentially deadly acute respiratory infections (ARI) among the approximately 4,000 residents of Kawasi in 2020. More than half of the cases were reported to be in newborns or toddlers aged four and under.

According to Indonesian health officials, the ARI prevalence in Kawasi was just under 20% in 2020, compared with a national average of 9%. Aside from the midwife clinic there was no active local health centre in the village when the Guardian visited.

“The difference [since the mining started] is enormous. The beach was still clean, the sea was not muddy like this and not red yet. People still fished in front of their houses,” says a nurse who has lived in the village since 2009, before the mine started operating. “The trend of [higher] ARI cases began at the same time as [mining] exploration also began,” adds the nurse.

“I keep thinking: is there any future for the children?” says Maria*, who grew up in the village.

* * *

Given its extreme remoteness, it is unsurprising few activists or journalists have visited Obi Island to talk to residents until now. From the capital, Jakarta, it takes a three-and-half hour flight, an overnight boat and another two hours at sea to reach Kawasi’s port.

A mine employee shows a photo of raw nickel.
A mine employee shows a photo of raw nickel. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

The plywood buildings and sporadic streets lights in Kawasi couldn’t feel more distant from glitzy city showrooms acclaiming fossil fuel-free travel.

As you disembark you can hear the constant creak and crash of cranes as they distribute their loads around the busy mining operations. The $1bn site, owned by the Indonesia-based Harita Group and China’s Lygend Mining, digs and processes nickel for use in EV batteries.

The Chinese battery component producer GEM has signed an agreement to purchase nickel from the company, PT Halmahera Persada Lygend. GEM supplies battery components to many of the world’s leading EV battery manufacturers, including Chinese-owned CATL, which controls about 30% of the global battery market.

The ultimate beneficiaries are likely to be many of the most well-known EV brands, with nickel from these mines used to produce batteries that could end up in cars sold by Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen (VW).

Booming nickel prices and a “battery arms race” have seen a rush to develop mines but there are fears that regulatory oversight has failed to keep up with the pace of development.

“They [the Indonesian government] are trying to remove red tape to make the industry more attractive for investment, but without proper environmental assessments, it could be risky given the way the industry is heading,” says Indonesian nickel mining expert Steven Brown.

Land and forest around the Kawasi village have been occupied by the mining company.
Land and forest around Kawasi are occupied by the mining company. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

Holding mining companies and the supply chain to account for pollution is difficult, says Matthew Baird, an environmental lawyer based in south-east Asia, especially when there could be multiple sources for the contamination.

“These big mining operations are very much in areas that are very inaccessible and where they are operating as a de facto local government ‘company town’,” he says. “Mining companies may blame other problems and that all may be correct, but because they are there, there is a likelihood they are contributing to the problem.”

* * *

Near the village of Kawasi, water samples collected by the Guardian from a fountain less than 200 metres from the mining site and tested at government-certified laboratories suggest high levels of contamination from carcinogenic Cr6: 60 parts per billion (ppb). The maximum contaminant level allowed by law in Indonesia is 50 ppb.

Cr6 can cause liver damage, reproductive problems and developmental harm when ingested or inhaled. Long-term exposure through drinking water has also been linked to stomach cancer. Evidence has shown that Cr6 in drinking water can be a result of industrial processes.

A fountain for household water.
A fountain for household water. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

The fountain the Guardian’s samples were taken from comes out of rocks above Kawasi; villagers claim it is their only source of water for drinking, bathing and washing fruit and vegetables.

“The impacts of this [type of] mining are persistent, long term and in some ways subtle. It’s not like a large catastrophic failure. These are Erin Brockovich long-term, persistent and subtle impacts that the regulatory system is not necessarily equipped to deal with,” says Baird.

In response to questions from the Guardian, Halmahera Persada Lygend said ARI was common in developing countries, especially in tropical regions. It said the solution included adequate nutrition for children from the time they are in the womb, proper hygiene within homes and improved awareness through education.

Canals made by the company drain away water and mud from mining activities. This canal runs through a residential area and into the sea.
Canals made by the company drain away water and mud from mining activities. This canal runs through a residential area and into the sea. Photograph: Adlun Fiqri Pramadhani/The Guardian

In response to the allegations of unsafe levels of Cr6, the company said tests it had conducted on Kawasi’s spring water from 2013 to 2021 showed that it met the water quality standards set by the government, with results of Cr6 content in the range of 5 to 40 ppb. It said its tests had showed there was no Cr6 discharge from its system or impact on the water quality of the Kawasi springs.

Brown says mines in Indonesia are only required to check for chromium (Cr6 and Cr6+) once a month and are probably not yet fully aware of the risks.

Halmahera Persada Lygend said that the positive and negative impacts of its projects had been assessed in an environmental impact analysis, which has been reviewed and approved by the government. It also said provincial and district environmental offices regularly conducted site inspections to review company operations and take samples for analysis if needed.

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Mercedes-Benz said it took the allegations seriously and was immediately contacting its direct supplier to clarify the issues raised, even though it does not buy nickel directly. VW was contacted for comment.

* Names have been changed to protect identity

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Febriana Firdaus in Obi Island and Tom Levitt

The GuardianTramp

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