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'We Just Want to Breathe Some Clear Air'

Concerns over coal power plant pollution cloud Bali's north coast.
bali air
I Ketut Mangku Wijana. Photo by Jurnasyanto Sukarno/ Greenpeace Indonesia 

I Ketut Mangku Wijana was examining a fallen coconut tree leaf when I arrived at his plantation. The leaf was brownish yellow and covered with strange white spots. Mangku walked his property and stared at the other trees. He soon found at least 20 palm trees with damaged leaves. He told me that a few years ago, his plantation was afflicted with an Asiatic Rhinoceros beetle infestation.

But this new problem was something different. The 55-year-old plantation owner, a man who inherited the plantation from his parents back in the 90s, told me that he couldn't be sure, but the spots might have something to do with the nearby coal power plant.


"Even during the pest invasion, the damage wasn't this bad," Mangku told me. “We immediately removed the damaged trees and replaced them. The pests have long gone, but now the trees are contaminated by PLTU.”

His three-acre plantation faces the Java Sea in Buleleng, a long district that covers most of Bali's northern coast. It's the site his parents planted their first coconut trees back in 1978, and today it's also the location of PLTU Celukan Bawang—a controversial power plant that locals claims is responsible for a host of environmental disasters.

It's hard to tell if the power plant is actually causing Mangku's crops to fail. Most of his suspicions stem from circumstantial evidence. But the circumstances of the blight, he told me, are too strong to ignore. Before the power plant began full operations in 2015, Mangku could harvest some 9,500 coconuts every two months. Today, he's lucky if he can pull less than half of that—about 2,500—in a single harvest.

There are similar stories throughout Buleleng district. Karimun, a mother, told me that her family keeps falling ill. Some of them have been struggling with respiratory problems after the plant opened up. "My child gets sick every month,” Karimun told me. “Before all that she was never sick. Now even I have trouble breathing.”

I Putu Gede Astawu, a fisherman, told me that waste from the coal plant had contaminated the sea near the coast. Again, the evidence is circumstantial. Before the plant began operations, Astawu could pull some 300 buckets of mackerel, flying fish, and snapper from the sea.


Today, he has to sail farther from the coast to catch less fish, bringing home an average of 10 to 15 buckets. Now Astawu, a man who has been fishing since he was a child, has to work as a carpenter on the side to make ends meet. "The coral reef near Celukan Bawang have been polluted,” Astawu told me. “Coal barges go back and forth every day. The coal waste also make the water hot.”

The coal power plant. Photo by Adi Renaldi

Astawu isn't wrong. The sea water off the coast of Buleleng actually is warmer. The average water temperature in Bali is between 28 and 32 degrees Celsius, according to Didit Haryo, a Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner who works on energy and climate issues. But the sea temperature rose to 38 to 40 degrees Celsius since the coal plant started operations, Didider told me.

"There are ways for a PLTU to manage to coal waste and pollution, but most power plant facilities in Indonesia never do it,” he explained. “The installation cost is too expensive. This would affect the cost of electricity as well."

Mangku and his fellow community members are parties in a lawsuit challenging the legality of PLTU Celukan Bawang's environmental impact assessment, or AMDAL. The lawsuit, filed in January of this year with the help of the Bali Legal Aid Foundation, alleges that the coal plant failed to involve the local community during the AMDAL process, a violation of regulations set out by the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry.


“The AMDAL doesn’t have a holistic evaluation on the potential risks,” said Dewa Putu Adnyana, a lawyer at the foundation. “So legally speaking, it’s flawed.”

The lawsuit is just the latest step in the local community's long-standing opposition to the power plant. The residents told me they were never involved in the AMDAL process, and that the land acquisition process was handled through a series of middlemen who obscured what was actually going to be built in their back yards.

“They made the AMDAL just so their project can be accepted,” Mangku said. “We didn’t even know that they were going to build a power plant here. We only heard rumors of a soy sauce factory.”

Others who were actually told that a power plant was coming were promised everything from free electricity to jobs at the coal plant as long as they didn't fight the project. None of these promises came to fruition, Mangku told me.

I Putu Gede Astawu. Photo by Jurnasyanto Sukarno/ Greenpeace Indonesia

I called up PLTU Celukan Bawang to request an interview, but they declined to comment for this story. The plant was built with $700 million USD in financing from a China Huadian Engineering Company (CHEC), a Chinese energy and infrastructure firm. CHEC had denied these allegations of environmental degradation in the local press, telling reporters that their plant was actually one of the cleanest ones around.

“We’ve had a hearing with the local communities about the project,” Sung Qingsong, the chairman of CHEC, told local media. “They wanted the coal-fired power plants to be environmentally friendly, and they think it’s already pretty good. We have shown that we apply a high and good standard. It’s deemed adequate by the Bali’s provincial government and local communities. The majority of the people are showing support for our project, and we thank them for that.”


Indonesia is trying to increase its capacity to provide citizens with reliable electricity nationwide. While some government policies back a renewable energies push—the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources is targeting 20 to 25 percent sustainable energy sources—the sheer amount of cheap, readily available coal is working against these greener goals. Right now, at most, 8 percent of Indonesia's electricity comes from renewable sources, according to the ministry.

Indonesia is the sixth-largest coal producer in the world. The country's coal mining companies were selling 392 million tons per year in 2015, a figure that amounted to nearly 7 percent of all the coal sold in the world that year. The country invested heavily in the coal sector, increasing its output four-fold in the last decade, in order to meet strong demand from China.

Indonesia's coal output was outpacing its domestic consumption when the demand from China suddenly dried up. The Chinese government decided to move away from coal power plants and invest in cleaner energies. Decades of relying on coal had blanketed the country with some of the most-polluted air in the world.

But the decision hurt the Indonesian coal industry. China was responsible for as much as 30 percent of exports. Now, the central government is backing a plan to dramatically increase its coal consumption from 97 million metric tons a year, in 2017, to 121 million metric tons. There are currently 40 coal-fire plants in operation, and under the new government push, that number is set to expand by an additional 35 by 2020.


Some question why this coal expansion happened on Bali in the first place. The province is above the national electrification average, and, according to the state-owned energy supplier, only 5.5 percent of households aren't on the electrical grid.

The island is prone to blackouts, but it also currently produces more electricity than it needs at peak times. The local branch of state-owned energy company PLN reported a peak usage of 860 megawatts in 2017. The same year, local power plants produced 1,280 megawatts of electricity.

But the local government still wants to build new coal plants in Bali, while also postponing a proposed plan to extend the electrical grid from East Java because the high-tension towers would be taller than a coconut tree and in violation of local regulations about building heights.

It's a plan that trapped people like Mangku in an unenviable situation. The government's development needs and the needs of Mangku and his community aren't the same thing. From a boat anchored off Cekukan Bawang beach, I stared at the rows of coconut trees surrounding the coal power plant. White smoke was rising from the plant's blue dome.

I looked at Mangku, who was staring at the smoke as well. “We just want to breathe some clear air,” he said.