Indonesia Calls State of Emergency After Giant Oil Spill Catches Fire

An underground pipeline was identified on Wednesday as the source of the spill.
April 4, 2018, 5:44pm
Image: ARIDJWANA/AFP/Getty Images

An oil spill in Indonesia’s port city of Balikpapan, on the island of Borneo, killed at least four fishermen when a state-owned oil refinery pipe burst 25 meters below the sea surface, causing crude oil to seep out over 16 square miles in the Makassar Strait. The government of Indonesia, a cluster of 7,000 islands, called for a state of emergency on Tuesday and funneled funding into its cleanup.

Over the weekend, local officials had reported a fire about 1.2 miles high, which was later extinguished, and said one boat with 20 people on board was rescued at the site. Pertamina, a government-run fossil fuel site, has originally denied any leaks or involvement with the spill, according to the BBC, but then announced that its pipe had fractured and moved 120 meters (about 394 feet) from its original position.


"The city is in an emergency situation because of the oil spill and the bay is now like a gas station," Sayid Fadli, the Balikpapan city secretary, told the Associated Press. "We have warned workers and residents around the bay to refrain from lighting cigarettes and make safety the priority."

Oil spills in the area, which is heavily supported by a fishing and trade economy, are uncommon. But last year the Indonesian government filed a lawsuit over an Australian petroleum company that they said devastated the local fishing economy.

"The bay is now like a gas station"

Meanwhile, the impact of the oil spill on people, animals, and the environment in the area is uncertain. About 1,300 people have reported respiratory issues so far, and the government was handing out gas masks for those living close by. The AFP also reported the death of an Irrawaddy dolphin, an endangered species native to Southeast Asia.

Crude oil spills, even if they’re cleaned up quickly, can have far-reaching consequences on the environment. From the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the Hebei Spirit spill in Korea, the damage to ecosystems usually exists years after the event.

So far, cleanup efforts in Balikpapan had collected 69,300 cubic metres of crude oil as of Tuesday evening, according to the AFP report. And the local fishing community organized a protest to hold the government and Pertamina responsible on Wednesday.