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Pacific News Minute: Indonesia State Oil Company Admits Its Cracked Pipeline Caused Deadly Oil Spill


The source of a deadly oil spill off the coast of Borneo has been identified. After denying responsibility for days, Pertamina, Indonesia’s state oil company now admits that unknown quantities of crude oil leaked from a crack in one of its underwater pipelines. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.

Last Saturday, as crude rose to the surface near the port city of Balikpapan, a group of friends on vacation set a fire to try to clear a spot for fishing.  The volatile oil erupted; at least four are reported dead.

As emergency workers struggled to control the fire that spread more than a mile across the bay, locals pointed to the nearby Pertamina refinery as the likely culprit.

The state oil company insisted that neither the refinery nor its underwater pipelines had anything to do with it. The company ran tests that showed that the pollutant was marine fuel oil, it said, not crude, so police questioned the crew of a Chinese coal carrier. Then, yesterday, divers discovered a rupture in a pipeline beneath the bay. By that time, the oil had spread sixteen miles. Police are now investigating the cause of the crack.

Local authorities have warned residents not to light cigarettes in the area and distributed face masks. Balikpapan Secretary Sayid MN Fadli said “The city is now like a gas station.”

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Map of Balikpapan Bay

Hundreds have reported difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting from inhaling fumes and smoke. A state of emergency has been declared to facilitate release of government funds for the cleanup. A sludge covers at least seven square miles of water and black blobs cover the beaches. it will be weeks, at least, before any reliable estimate of the damage to wildlife and fishing can be made.

Balikpapan is a city of 700,000 on the strait of Makassar, which runs along the east coast of Borneo.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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