Environmental Extremes

We Visited Indonesia’s Giant Community-Destroying Oil Spill

Ordinary citizens worry about how to survive a disaster caused by Indonesia’s largest oil company.

by Adi Renaldi ; photos by Iqbal Kusumadirezza; translated by Jade Poa
18 September 2019, 11:09pm

Beach clean-up after the Pertamina oil spill at Cemarajaya Beach, Karawang.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia

This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. In Asia-Pacific, each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes.

This report by our staff writer Adi Renaldi is about the Pertamina oil spill and the risks locals face while cleaning toxic waste from beaches. It is part 1 in a two-part series. Part 2 will explore allegations of poor oil spill management raised by locals and mobilised by the State-Owned Enterprise Agency.


All his life, Darsa has had a close relationship with the sea. Every night, he falls asleep to the sound of waves. As a fisherman, the 45-year-old lives on the coast of Cemara Jaya Beach, Karawang, roughly 95 kilometres from Jakarta. Due to intense coastal erosion, Darsa’s house is now only two metres from the sea. Water seeps into his house during high tide, something he has become accustomed to.

But Darsa’s relationship with the sea turned sour when a well operated by Indonesian oil giant Pertamina began to leak in July. One night in late August, waves brought oil into his and 20 other villagers’ homes. It caused a panic. The oil did not recede the following morning, forcing them to evacuate. When Darsa came to check on his house the next day, he found his walls stained inky black. In his kitchen and restroom, the oil sludge was up to his mid-calf.

“The smell was overwhelming. I couldn’t handle it, and I was worried about my children’s health,” Darsa told VICE. “The oil keeps flowing into my home and is caked in every nook.”

The community continues to suffer from the effects of the oil spill to this day.

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CEMARAJAYA BEACH, KARAWANG, COVERED IN OIL FROM THE PERTAMINA OIL SPILL. PHOTOGRAPHED SEPT. 9, 2019. THE SPILL HAS BEEN ONGOING FOR A MONTH, FLOWING INTO LOCALS’ HOMES.

Karawang’s shore is 84 kilometres long but over half of it has receded because of coastal abrasion. The seawater and sand quickly turned black on July 12 when Pertamina’s oil well YYA-1 Offshore NorthWest Java (ONWJ), located two kilometres offshore, began to leak.

The media only reported about the spill two weeks after it happened. Pertamina said that the leak first occurred when they were in the middle of drilling a re-entry well for oil extraction in late 2018. Shortly after, bubbles of gas began to emerge at the drilling site.

Gas bubbles are commonly found at extraction sites, but can also be a sign that something is wrong. In April 2010, the British Petroleum-owned Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded after methane gas bubbles emerged from a pipe to the surface. The incident cost 11 lives and released 4.9 million gallons of oil into the sea, making it the worst drilling accident in history. It took five months to seal the well.

Four days after the Karawang leak was detected, an oil sheen emerged on the sea’s surface, followed by gas bubbles. On July 18, the oil reached the shore. Pertamina authorities initially thought the gas bubbles emerged due to an air pressure anomaly.

“We are still thoroughly investigating the cause,” Pertamina Director Dharmawan H. Samsu told local media at the time.

Not long after the oil spill reached the surface, Pertamina installed an oil boom to contain the spill. They also dispatched over 40 ships to clean up the oil at each site where the concentration was highest. But that still wasn’t enough. The oil seeped through the blockade, and the current brought the sludge ashore. The YYA-1 well was expected to produce 3,000 barrels of oil and 23 million cubic feet of gas per day. According to multiple sources, the spill is releasing 400-600 barrels of oil into the ocean per day.

In mid-August, Pertamina began drilling a relief well to stop the gas bubbles and oil spill by injecting dense mud into the source of the spill to permanently close it. The relief well is expected to be 3,000 metres deep. Pertamina has also employed the help of a Texas drilling company, Boots and Coots, which worked on the Deepwater Horizon spill and oil spills during the Gulf War.

But Karawang’s problems are far from over.

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ONE LOCAL’S HOME THAT HAD TO BE ABANDONED, CEMARAJAYA, KARAWANG, WEST JAVA.

There are five beaches in Karawang: Tirtasari, Sedari, Tanjungsari, Cemara Jaya, and Karangsari. All are part of a single ecosystem with diverse marine life. The area is home to countless fishermen and their families, and was a popular tourist destination. Along the coast, restaurants and shacks were often filled with visitors and locals.

But when news of the oil spill broke out in July, tourists avoided these beaches, leaving residents to deal with the oily mess. Pertamina has since employed hundreds of residents to clean up the shore, paying them between Rp75,000 (US$5.32) and 125,000 (US$8.87) plus lunch per day.

About a month after the spill occurred, I made my way to Sedari beach. On my left, the view was dotted with ponds, mangroves, and houses. On my right, the Citarum river flowed toward the Java Sea. Before reaching the beach, I stopped to chat with two fishermen sitting on their boat, hoarding clumps of sticky oil into sacks. Their skin was caked with black sludge. They had just returned from sea after gathering oil that was being held in a 2x2-metre reservoir covered in tarp. In a single day, they brought back 70 sacks filled with oil.

“There are no more fish because of the oil,” one of the fishermen, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “Even if we do catch any fish or prawns, they smell terrible. They won’t sell. We haven’t gone fishing for a month. This [oil spill] won’t end anytime soon.”

Not much later, the two returned to the beach, hoping to retrieve more oil.

The promise of a wage for helping to restore the beach has attracted visitors from nearby areas. Luminto, a laborer who often stands by at the Karawang market, joined the clean-up when he heard about the wage Pertamina was offering. All he needed to enlist was his identification card.

“It’s better than sitting around all day, wondering if I’ll find a job to do. With this project, the wage is set,” Luminto told me.

Luminto wasn’t the only outsider collecting oil for money. At the entry gate of the beach, dozens of motorcyclists lined up behind a truck and took turns submitting their oil-filled sacks. A person in a white hazmat suit and a mask stood on the truck bed, directing the flow of sacks.

It was around lunchtime when locals took a break and ate lunch in shacks known as warungs that used to serve food and coffee, but had been abandoned due to the decrease in tourists. Along the coast, a mesh net was installed to prevent more oil from reaching the shore, but it didn’t seem to be very effective.

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RESIDENTS CLEAN CEMARA BEACH WITHOUT SUFFICIENT GEAR.

A small, middle-aged man offered me some of his food, which I respectfully refused. His name is Ciming. With his wife and two children, he cleans up the beach from 6:00 in the morning until sunset. His son, Riki Aldiansyah, 24, sat beside him smoking a clove cigarette. When Pertamina began recruiting residents to assist with cleaning the beach, Ciming was one of the first to offer his help. Usually, he makes a living renting out swimming tubes to tourists, but when the tourists stopped coming, his business died out.

“Now it looks clean,” Ciming told me, gesturing towards the beach. “But tomorrow it will be covered in filth again. The current will bring more sludge to shore, onto land. The cycle repeats itself everyday.”

Ciming said he earns more money cleaning up oil now than he did with his former business. He makes multiple trips to the shore a day and can fit 24 sacks onto his motorcycle in a single trip. If he works every day, he earns Rp4.5 million (US$319) per month, just over minimum wage.

“I’ve never made this much money before,” Ciming admitted.

Riki nodded in agreement. Ciming’s previous income was unpredictable and depended on the number of tourists visiting the area. He considered it a lucky month when he made Rp3 million (US$2.13). To help his family out, Riki works as a caretaker for his neighbor’s pond, which doesn’t provide steady pay. Riki has contracted a nervous disorder since working at the pond, which his doctor attributed to sleep deprivation and exposure to “sea wind.”

“Before I transported the oil yesterday, I went for a checkup at the doctor’s office,” Riki said. “I’ve never worked in the city. I’ve spent my whole life here. I don’t even have health insurance.”

Riki offered to take me on his motorbike to see the oil at Dobolan beach, around 7 kilometres from Sedari. He said it was still filthy. I jumped onto the seat, under which Riki stored 24 empty plastic sacks. After filling them up, he will go back and give them to the collection truck.

On the way to the beach, I was amazed by the mangroves that lined the coast. Sedari beach is known for its 38-square kilometre mangrove that has attracted visitors since 2017, when it was opened to the public.

Unfortunately, the mangroves, which are an effective deterrent to abrasion, are now at risk due to the oil spill. The thick, sticky oil has stuck to the trees’ roots and branches. Residents have attempted to remove the oil by hand, but the task proved to be too difficult. They say at least 5,000 trees are now damaged by the heat from the oil.

Every few metres, I saw groups of people digging into the sand, looking for oil residue with bare hands and taking no safety measures. Protective wear is a must when dealing with oil spills. Riki told me that Pertamina gave each recruit a set of gear, including a pair of boots, a mask, and nylon garments, but most don’t use them. This includes Riki and his family, who said the provided supplies were insufficient for multiple month’s worth of work.

Riki also said many recruits are ill-informed about the importance of safety gear. Even those who are aware would rather risk their health to get the job done quickly. Still, a massive banner that reads “You Are Entering A Safety Gear-Mandatory Area” hangs over the entrance to Sedari beach.

“I often get headaches,” Riki told me. “But that might be because I spend all day under the sun. I only have one set of gear from Pertamina. How am I supposed to use it all day, every day?”

According to data from the Karawang Department of Environment, 7,500 residents who clean up the oil spill have experienced itchy skin and acute respiratory tract infections. The number is based on field data across contaminated areas along Karawang over the past month. It is likely to rise if safety measures will continue to be ignored.

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AN OIL-COVERED BEACH STRETCHING 84 KILOMETRES FROM KARAWANG’S NORTH BEACH TO GEMBONG BEKASI.

The oil spill has economic, environmental, and health consequences. In addition to the scale of material losses that is still unknown, the spill poses a huge threat to marine ecosystems, Dwi Sawung from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) told VICE.

Walhi is still collecting data on the immediate environmental effects of the oil spill but what is certain is that marine life and commodities like fish, prawns, corals, seaweed, and salt, will take a while to recover.

“The fish will definitely die,” Sawung said. “That’s not counting fish in saltwater ponds, which are a source of livelihood for locals. Due to the drilling and poisoning of the water, seagrass in Java’s waters has long died.”

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AN OIL-COVERED BEACH STRETCHING 84 KILOMETRES FROM KARAWANG’S NORTH BEACH TO GEMBONG BEKASI.

Wariyah, a 43 year-old warung and pond owner who goes by one name, didn’t look pleased when I asked her how the spill has affected her family. Her pond requires routine replenishment from the sea to keep her fish alive. Since the seawater is now poisoned, so are all the fish in saltwater ponds. Her warung, where she sells food, snacks, and cigarettes, also took a hit. Instead of the usual tourists, only workers visit her shop to buy instant noodles and coffee.

“Pertamina has promised to compensate us for our losses,” Wariyah said. “Where is it? We haven’t seen anything yet, and we don’t even know how much they plan to give us. I heard it’s Rp500,000 (US$35.50) per hectare. That’s not much. And what about my warung? No one visits it anymore because of the spill.”

There are at least ten saltwater ponds in the village of Sedari, Wariyah told me. Most of them are non-operational, while those that still contain fish are unlikely to produce any profit.

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MOTORCYCLE DRIVERS WAITING IN LINE TO GATHER THEIR OIL IN TRUCKS.

Because of the blow to their livelihood and health, a coalition of citizens and students subpoenaed the District Head of Karawang, Cellica Nurrachdiana. "The Karawang regional government is busy taking care of compensation," Ravindra, a spokesperson for the coalition who goes by one name, said. "Until now, they haven't set up health centers to monitor those who are most affected. The government doesn't care if we're poisoned."

Starting on Sept. 11, Pertamina began paying out compensation totalling Rp18,54 billion (US$131,900) to the more than 10,000 affected residents, equalling Rp900,000 (US$64.00) per person for each month they lost their source of income.

PT Pertamina Hulu Energi, a subsidiary of Pertamina, said the source of the leak will be fixed by early October. But until then, thousands of gallons of oil will leak every day, contaminating the surrounding ecosystem. Ciming and other residents can’t bear to imagine the impact the spill may have on them in the future.

“What has happened, has happened,” said Ciming. “Maybe this disaster was a lesson from God.”

Elisabeth Glory Victory and Iqbal Kusumadirezza contributed to this report.