An American gold-mining executive was preparing Friday to defend himself in court for the first time against charges his company dumped millions of tons of mercury and arsenic-laced waste into an Indonesian bay, sickening villagers.
Richard Ness, the president director of Newmont Mining Corp.'s local subsidiary, faces up to 10 years in prison in the criminal trial that is being closely watched by foreign investors already anxious about bureaucratic and legal uncertainties in the country.
Newmont faces a possible fine of $68,000.
Indonesia has accused Ness and the Denver-based company of violating environmental laws by dumping pollutants from its now-defunct mine on Sulawesi island into Buyat Bay, but conflicting test results on the water have convoluted the case.
Ness, 56, was scheduled to take the stand Friday afternoon, but the lengthy appearance of a prosecutor witness earlier in the day meant he might have to wait for the next hearing, one week away.
Yayat Dahiyat, a marine biologist, told the court he reviewed several reports about possible damage to Buyat Bay's marine ecosystem in 2004 and determined that micro-organisms living on the seabed may have been affected.
"It is also possible fish either died or migrated to other areas," he told the court, adding that he had not been to the area himself and had no recollection about the details of the researchers' sample analysis or methodology.
Ness, who earlier denied allegations that the waste caused villagers to develop skin diseases and other illnesses, listened intently and occasionally consulted with legal advisers in the open-air courtroom.
More than 50 people _ several of then Newmont employees or journalists _ attended the trial, which began more than a year ago. Some watched it on a television screen from the hallway.
Newmont began operations in Sulawesi in 1996, but stopped mining in 2004 after extracting all the gold and ore it could.
A police report showed that levels of mercury and arsenic 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.
Judges last month called for new tests to be carried out.
In February, Newmont reached a $30 million out-of-court settlement with the Indonesian government to defuse a separate, civil case by the government to sue the company over alleged toxic pollution at Buyat Bay, some 1,300 miles northeast of Jakarta.
Environmental activists have long targeted Newmont in Indonesia and abroad, and are they are eager to see if the government will punish a multinational mining company for the first time in recent history.
The criminal case against the company is being heard in Manado, the capital of north Sulawesi province. A verdict is expected later this year.
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