On March 31st, a pipeline on the east coast of the Indonesian island of Borneo burst in just over 80 feet of water. The pipeline, owned by an oil company called Pertamina, transferred crude oil from East Kalimantan, Borneo to a refinery in Balikpapan. According to reports, the damage occurred when a coal ship dropped anchor onto the pipeline and dragged it for nearly 300 feet along the bottom of Balikpapan Bay. Within hours, it became clear that it would be devastating. The oil rose to the surface, spread rapidly, caught fire. Now, five fishermen are dead and over 1,000 residents are experiencing health problems from the choking black smoke.
A few days later after the spill and ensuing blaze, Indonesian officials declared a state of emergency. By then, the slick had grown to some 13,000 hectares, drenched nearly 40 miles of coastline, and made its way into nearly impossible-to-clean areas like mangrove wetlands.
Authorities first claimed that the slick was only marine oil used in boats, but by Wednesday it was clear that the culprit had to be much a larger source. It was then that they announced that it was the 20-year-old pipeline. “We suspect the pipe was dragged by the ship that caught fire,” Oil and Gas Director General Djoko Siswanto told reporters on Thursday. “At the time it was bad weather, so they had to drop anchor.” Siswanto went on to explain that anchoring is prohibited in the area.
Although the Balikpapan Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) initially reported that the fire was an attempt by Pertamina to get rid of the slick, they’ve since retracted their statements. “We are sorry to report that the information that Pertamina ordered the burning of the oil spill is not true,” BPBD wrote in a social media post. The cause of the fire is not yet known.
Pertamina, though, is under heavy fire from environmental groups in the area. The company, along with local government, has been accused of slow response times. “The government is so late to mitigate the impact of this incident,” Greenpeace spokesman Arifsyah Nasution told CNN. “The handling of the oil spill is slow, which could be (due to a lack of) equipment resources.”
The Balikpapan environmental agency reported that, although the slick is still visible, the cleanup is working. They’re using oil dispersant spray around the coast and oil booms have trapped nearly 15,000 barrels of oil from the water. The military, with assistance from local volunteers, have been working around the clock to clean up the oil washing up along the coastline, but the damage has been done. Pollution has spread throughout Balikpapan bay, killing marine life that includes protected dugongs and dolphins.