The Balikpapan Oil Spill and update on the 15th of April

Balikpapan oil spill
The Balikpapan oil spill

Huge oil fire

Many of you may in the meantime have read from my Twitter or from news media that last Saturday the city of Balikpapan was watching a huge oil fire with an enormous black cloud rising above it. The fire happened right in front of the Pertamina oil refineries in the middle of the Bay of Balikpapan. 4 persons were confirmed dead and one is still missing. A huge oil spill covering several thousand hectares is still (April 4th, 2018) floating on the water. Initially the state oil enterprise Pertamina claimed it was fuel from a tanker that caused the blaze but after protests and a police investigation they admitted just hours ago (4 days later!) that it was their leaking 20-year-old pipeline underneath the Bay of Balikpapan that brings oil from the Paser Penajam Utara district to the refineries in Balikpapan that was the culprit.

Balikpapan view on the bay Balikpapan view on the bay 2

Air pollution

All over the city of Balikpapan the strong nauseating smell was noticeable and according local newspaper reports hundreds of people reported breathing and other health issues that they related to the big fire and were treated in hospital. The Minister of Environment and Forestry sent an integrated team to try to bring the oil slick towards the Pertamina refinery where some 70 m3 of the spill was pumped up so far.

Oil covering the leaves of mangroves near Balikpapan.
Oil covering the leaves of mangroves near Balikpapan.
the very rare Irrawaddy dolphins burned in the flames
The very rare Irrawaddy dolphins burned in the flames.

Environmental disaster

The Bay of Balikpapan has some of the best remaining mangrove forests in Kalimantan and we also have coral in the bay waters and a small population of Irrawaddy dolphins. Just a few weeks ago I spent half an hour watching a pod of four playfully swirl and swim near our boat on the exact spot where the huge fire happened. I was very sad to see the pictures of one dead Irrawaddy dolphin with severe burns which are most likely caused by the oil fire. Beneath a picture of the dolphin and how the oil spill is covering the lower leaves of the mangroves near Balikpapan. It is still unclear what the longer-term impact on the ecosystem will be.

Here are some pictures of our harbour, normally the scene of many children jumping in the water for a swim, which will not be possible for some time to come.

Balikpapan oil spill
Balikpapan oil spill
oil in front of the Arsari harbor
Oil in front of the Arsari harbor

The picture on the left was after one day and the picture on the right is the oil in front of the Arsari harbor four days later. The smell is still everywhere and can even be detected 25 kilometres up the Bay of Balikpapan.

oil slicks ten kilometres up the Bay of Balikpapan
Oil slicks ten kilometres up the Bay of Balikpapan

Need for change!

Here is a picture of oil slicks ten kilometres up the Bay of Balikpapan where endless streams of pontoons with more CO2 emitting fossil coal and impending global disaster are heading to electricity power plants to support this growing nation’s needs. Just a further ten kilometres up the bay, Arsari Enviro Industri is putting up a challenge to fossil fuels through their sustainable energy producing agroforestry based reforestation in combination with biochar stored in the soil to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere. We are also protecting the remaining good mangroves and wildlife there and restoring damaged mangrove forests. A bigger contrast with the fast expanding old fossil fuel based industries close to the city of Balikpapan is hardly imaginable. Hopefully this disaster will at least make some decision makers focus on the need for real change. Change that needs to follow the principles of nature. Nature does not know the concept of waste.

Willie Smits
Arsari base camp
Bay of Balikpapan
April 4th, 2018

Update on the oil spill in Balikpapan

It is now almost two weeks after the big fire and the huge oil spill in the Bay of Balikpapan. In the local newspapers half the news concerns the aftermath of the oil spill. The state oil company Pertamina is now dealing with the repercussions they face after admitting it was their pipeline that burst and led to the deaths and environmental disaster. Together with the city council of Balikpapan they are making inventories of the various damages that resulted from the oil spill.

The impact on the mangroves is clearly visible, especially for the younger trees that got most of their leaves covered with oil. Dozens of people are involved in pulling out the thousands of dead young trees because there is the suspicion that the oil on them contains dangerous chemicals. Pertamina is collecting these dead trees and promised to replant the same number of trees. They have also distributed special tissues to wipe off the oil from many other affected mangrove trees in an attempt to save them. These extra large pore tissues are also used to wipe off the foundations of the houses build above the water in the Bay of Balikpapan.

Although the water is now clearing up significantly I could still see the many oil slicks on the water coming into Balikpapan by plane. The government has warned residents to still avoid all swimming in the affected waters. The crabs have started digging new holes again after initially all surfacing and sea worms show more activity. But the people that live from finding worms to be used as bait say that they are still covered with some oil and that the fish will not bite when they are used as bait so their income has been severely impacted and so it has been for the 165 fishermen identified so far as having lost fishing nets in the fire, damaged boats, and simply not being able to go out to fish in the oil slicks. The bill is likely to be very high for Pertamina.

On Saturday I went to check on the mangroves around our Arsari reforestation project in the Bay of Balikpapan and did not find any evidence of damage that might be related to the oil spill. Let’s hope there are no other pipelines that shift 120 meters underwater to lead to more spills and that real lessons are learned from this disaster. As a positive aspect, I was pleased to notice that everyone now talks about the importance of the mangrove ecosystem in the Bay of Balikpapan such as for protection of the coast and for the fishery sector. I hope people will remember…

April 15th, 2018. Willie Smits

Wim van de Meerendonk