OBIRA ISLAND, Indonesia — On a distant island near the place the Pacific meets the Indian Ocean sits one of many first refineries constructed particularly to assist the world’s transition away from fossil fuels.
Rocks unearthed right here include traces of nickel, a key ingredient in electrical automobile batteries. Extracting it, refining it and readying it for export is a gargantuan activity.
Greater than $1 billion has been sunk into the processing facility, the primary in Indonesia to make use of an acid-leaching expertise to transform low-grade laterite nickel ore — which the nation has in abundance — right into a higher-grade materials appropriate for batteries. Overseas buyers and lenders cite the mission as proof of their dedication to preventing local weather change.
However the sprawling facility, bordered on one aspect by forest and on the opposite by blue seas, faces a serious problem: what to do with the roughly 4 million metric tons of poisonous waste produced yearly — sufficient, roughly, to fill 1,667 Olympic-size swimming swimming pools.
In 2020, the businesses behind the mission instructed the federal government that they had an answer: They might pump the waste into the ocean. They in the end backtracked within the face of public stress. Nevertheless it’s not clear that the on-land storage different they’ve provided as a substitute is considerably safer.
Indonesia is the world’s prime producer of nickel by a large margin, in response to the U.S. Geological Survey. Together with Australia, the nation has the largest nickel reserves left on Earth.
And as world demand for nickel surges, firm executives and Indonesian authorities leaders are turning to a refining expertise lengthy thought-about too dangerous to embrace, too perilous for the setting and for native communities.
This expertise, utilizing acid underneath circumstances of intense warmth and stress to take away nickel from uncooked ore, has by no means been examined earlier than in Indonesia, the place the frequency of earthquakes, heavy rainfall and landslides could make it particularly treacherous to move and retailer hazardous waste. The method poses steep environmental prices which have but to be reckoned with, in response to interviews with greater than 40 folks conversant in the nation’s nickel business, visits to 6 largely remoted mining villages in jap Indonesia and visible analyses by mining consultants.
Indonesian officers say this new refining expertise is required to harness these nickel assets, which they hope will remodel the nation’s future as oil did for Saudi Arabia. At the very least 10 different initiatives utilizing this similar expertise are already underneath improvement, in response to the Indonesian Nickel Mining Affiliation.
Officers have made it a precedence to construct a nickel provide chain, banning the export of uncooked nickel ore for processing overseas and approving the event of acid-based refining amenities in addition to extra typical nickel smelters at a charge unparalleled elsewhere. Regardless of official pledges to cut back carbon emissions, the federal government has permitted the development of coal-fired energy crops particularly to assist the processing of nickel for the EV business.
A lot of the nickel in EV batteries utilized by automakers reminiscent of Tesla, Hyundai and Ford is already sourced from Indonesia by the use of battery producers in China. And by 2030, when world nickel demand is forecast to be 52 percent higher than in 2020, Indonesia will most likely churn out greater than two-thirds of the provision, in response to estimates from Macquarie Group, an Australian monetary companies group with experience within the mining sector.
The surging curiosity in nickel is a part of the worldwide increase in demand for a variety of metals utilized in making EVs, which usually require six times the mineral inputs of their fossil-fuel burning counterparts to make them run. However whereas the transition to EVs is broadly thought-about important in addressing local weather change, there has typically been little recognition of the toll that extraction and processing of those uncooked supplies — together with applied sciences now urgently wanted to supply the amount and high quality of minerals required — will tackle the lives and livelihoods of native communities and the encircling setting.
Laterite nickel ore is available in two types, and till lately there was no want to make use of the acid-leaching expertise partly as a result of Indonesia was mining the sort often called saprolite, which might be processed partly through the use of conventional smelters. However Indonesia — and the world — is working out of saprolite ore. What shall be left is lower-grade limonite ore, which consists of lower than 1.5 p.c nickel, making processing by conventional means practically unimaginable.
The decline in saprolite ore has occurred simply because the demand for battery-grade nickel has spiked. Most nickel mined in Indonesia has beforehand gone into merchandise like chrome steel, which may use a lower-grade mineral. However batteries require the next commonplace, which has positioned an unprecedented premium on the acid-leaching course of.
One afternoon late final yr, Liyus, a 52-year-old farmer on Obira, walked alongside the coast the place his household has lived for 4 generations. It’s been quiet on this island for many of his life. With out a non-public jet, attending to Obira from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, is at the least a two-day journey involving an in a single day ferry and hours of driving on roads stippled with potholes.
Liyus, who goes by one title, mentioned he used to drink from the rivers that run previous his village, however because the nickel mine added its acid-leaching refinery two years in the past, the waterways have turned darkish pink, so thick with air pollution at some factors that rows of coconut timber have been killed off. He doesn’t know what’s within the water, solely that it bleeds into the ocean and that his nephews have needed to go farther and farther out to seek out fish. He pointed to a fishing web drying on a close-by tree. It was stained a reddish brown.
In an hour-long interview, representatives from the 2 corporations that collectively personal the processing plant on Obira island — an Indonesian agency, Harita Group, and a Chinese language agency, Lygend Sources — mentioned that the operation has not had a unfavorable affect on the setting and that the air pollution alongside the coast was not associated to waste produced by their plant. All of their operations, they emphasised, are in “full compliance” with authorities necessities. “We checked out what was one of the best and we confirmed it with the federal government,” mentioned Tonny Gultom, Harita’s head of well being, security and setting.
Like different inhabitants of the village of Kawasi, which sits on the foot of Obira’s nickel-mining operation, Liyus has by no means owned a automobile and has no thought why there’s been a sudden curiosity within the mineral that sat untouched on his island for therefore lengthy.
“We had a cushty life,” Liyus mentioned, “earlier than this.”
Excessive-Strain Acid Leaching (HPAL) is a technique of refining low-grade nickel ore by combining it with sulfuric acid underneath excessive stress and warmth, producing a slurry that enables for the extraction of pure, high-grade nickel. The approach was pioneered within the Nineteen Sixties in Cuba however has not often been used elsewhere — till lately.
Managing the acidic materials underneath excessive warmth is extra difficult than conventional strategies of refining nickel ore. And the titanium vessels wanted to combine the chemical substances are costly, a part of why capital prices for HPAL initiatives are sometimes double these of typical smelters, in response to the Worldwide Vitality Company, an intergovernmental analysis group.
The leaching course of can also be energy-intensive, and producing that vitality produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of nickel, or about double the quantity of the prevailing processing methodology, in response to the IEA.
After which there’s the waste.
HPAL produces an unlimited quantity of corrosive chemical tailings — typically within the hundreds of thousands of tons for every mine per yr — which are extraordinarily difficult to neutralize, retailer and include. Even after the slurry is handled, research present, this waste can include dangerous heavy metals, reminiscent of sure varieties of chromium, linked to respiratory diseases and an elevated threat of most cancers.
Engineers have instructed three disposal choices: placing the waste right into a ditch behind a dam; drying out the waste and stacking it on vacant heaps; and pumping it into the ocean. Every method can go fallacious.
A number of the world’s largest mining corporations have tried to grasp the HPAL course of — and failed.
In 2021, Brazilian mining conglomerate Vale exited a multibillion-dollar HPAL nickel-mining mission within the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia after having 5 chemical spills in 10 years. Research by scientists in New Caledonia had by that point discovered “excessive ranges” of poisonous hexavalent chromium in water samples collected in and across the HPAL refining facility. The power, now owned by a consortium of New Caledonia corporations, had one more leak in November at its tailings dam, prompting native authorities to impose new laws that might restrict manufacturing.
Nearer to Indonesia, in Papua New Guinea, a Chinese language firm working an HPAL plant has for years been criticized by residents and officers for dumping its tailings into the ocean. After a tank full of mining waste overflowed onto the coast in 2019, hundreds of residents filed a lawsuit towards the corporate demanding $5.2 billion in damages. The case remains to be pending in courtroom, mentioned lawyer Ben Lomai, who represents the plaintiffs.
HPAL’s troubled historical past, nonetheless, has achieved little to discourage business enthusiasm for the expertise.
Whereas analysis is being performed on safer methods to course of limonite nickel ore, they gained’t have the ability to satiate present demand, mentioned Brian Menell, founding father of TechMet, an funding agency that focuses on minerals required for the green-energy transition. Indonesia’s HPAL amenities “may not be the way you need your nickel,” he mentioned, “however proper now, you’ve bought no alternative.”
A change of plans
The nickel mine on Obira has been operated by Harita since 2016, however in 2018, Lygend joined to plan, design and assemble the HPAL refinery, finally buying a majority stake within the mission. The processing facility, which was designated a precedence for the nationwide authorities, opened in 2021.
After the businesses withdrew their preliminary plan to dump the HPAL waste into the ocean, they instructed authorities that they might retailer the waste on land, drying out the acidic slurry earlier than dumping it again into the mining pit, after which treating the residue water in a tailings “pond.”
Solely a yr earlier, nonetheless, Harita executives had printed a research article in a science journal stating that land disposal on Obira is definitely “much less appropriate” as a result of the area is in a notoriously lively seismic zone — as lately as 2019, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated a port city on Bacan island, lower than 50 miles from Obira — and is steadily visited by heavy rainfall. That article additionally famous that about 7,000 villagers lived downstream from the location, concluding that the development and water management required for land disposal was “not possible.”
Requested about these findings, a Harita spokesman acknowledged that storing the waste on land is harmful however mentioned the corporate is managing the dangers by drying out the slurry and dumping it again into the mining pit, the place it’s prevented from seeping into native waterways.
However a overseas mining marketing consultant who has been engaged on initiatives in Indonesia for greater than 20 years mentioned: “It’s a large heap of waste. And if it’s not saved correctly, you possibly can have landslides. That’s my largest concern.” He spoke on the situation of anonymity due to enterprise issues.
Following the general public outcry over the preliminary disposal plan, the Indonesian authorities barred all nickel-processing crops from dumping waste into the ocean, mentioned Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for funding and maritime affairs and chief architect of the nation’s nickel technique.
“We tackled this very properly, you understand?” Luhut mentioned, talking at his workplace in Jakarta final yr. “We listened to the recommendation of the European Union and we stopped. We don’t try this anymore.”
Villagers and environmental activists say they continue to be involved that Harita and Lygend, which function collectively in Indonesia underneath the title PT HPAL, are failing to honor their promise to maintain the waste on Obira out of the ocean and haven’t adequately addressed the dangers posed by storing the waste on land.
4 worldwide mining consultants independently reviewed images of the mining web site at Obira taken by The Washington Submit. The consultants mentioned that it was unimaginable and not using a formal audit to establish whether or not Harita and Lygend have been dumping HPAL tailings into the ocean, however that there have been a number of indicators that the businesses have been typically failing to include mining waste.
The images present “devastating” ranges of deforestation, which may improve the dangers of tailings accidents, mentioned Aimee Boulanger, govt director of the Initiative for Accountable Mining Assurance, a company that audits mining operations and measures them towards social and environmental requirements. Even when tailings weren’t being actively pumped into the ocean, there don’t look like “any vital controls” over what’s flowing out of the mine and coming into waterways, she added.
Sam Riggall, an advocate of accountable mining and the chief govt of Dawn Vitality Metals, an Australian nickel and cobalt mining firm, mentioned the fabric coming into the rivers across the mining facility resembled processed waste, fairly than simply runoff from open-pit mines.
“Frankly, I really feel a bit ashamed to be a part of an business that’s permitting this to occur,” Riggall mentioned. “If that is the legacy we depart behind … who shall be proud of that?”
Gultom, Harita’s head of security, acknowledged that the HPAL refinery was producing a “big quantity” of waste that might pose security dangers if not correctly managed, however he pressured that it was being dealt with with sufficient precautions.
The discolored water close to Obira’s coast, he mentioned, was brought on by sedimentation created by timber mining years in the past. “It has nothing,” Gultom mentioned, “to do with us.”
Harita, which debuted on the Jakarta inventory trade in April, plans so as to add a second processing plant on Obira subsequent yr, firm executives mentioned.
A booming business
Throughout the nickel-rich islands of North Maluku province, outdated mining corporations are increasing and new ones are taking root. They’re taking up massive tracts of land, residents say, generally with authorities authorization, generally with out. Bulk provider ships congregate alongside coastlines, recalling for some communities Indonesia’s colonial historical past, when Dutch and Portuguese settlers exploited these islands for spices reminiscent of nutmeg and cloves.
Nickel manufacturing in Indonesia hit a report excessive of 1 million metric tons in 2021, although it pales as compared with what’s projected to come back. By 2028, in response to Macquarie, the nation shall be producing at the least 2.5 million metric tons of nickel yearly.
China’s CATL and South Korea’s LG, the world’s largest battery producers for EVs, lately introduced they might open HPAL crops in Indonesia. Ford Motor Co. mentioned it will be part of an HPAL mission being developed by Vale and Chinese language mining firm Huayou on Sulawesi island in jap Indonesia. And final yr, Tesla signed a $5 billion deal to purchase nickel from Indonesia, authorities officers mentioned.
Considered one of Indonesia’s largest upcoming HPAL initiatives just isn’t removed from Obira in North Maluku.
The Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park on Halmahera island, a three way partnership between French and Chinese language corporations, has greater than doubled its footprint previously 5 years, satellite tv for pc imagery reveals. Up to now, the power has primarily produced nickel for stainless-steel, however a bunch of Chinese language corporations mentioned in 2021 that they might add a $2.1 billion HPAL facility.
Maryama Usama, 60, lives in Sagea, a village simply exterior the commercial park. She has heard that the nickel corporations on Halmahera want extra space. And he or she mentioned she is aware of folks within the neighboring village of Gemaf who weren’t given any discover earlier than heavy gear confirmed up on the land that had belonged to their households for generations.
“The federal government might have given them permits,” Usama mentioned, brushing the nook of her eye along with her hijab. “However the land doesn’t belong to them. It’s ours.”
A matter of belief
At a mining convention in 2021, Gultom outlined Harita’s mission: “Sustainable excellence although steady enchancment of individuals and course of.” On its website, Lygend says it’s dedicated to creating “inexperienced” nickel that may “speed up carbon neutralization.”
However Faizal Ratuela, govt director of the North Maluku chapter of WALHI, an Indonesian environmental advocacy group, questioned whether or not these corporations might be trusted to responsibly function nickel refineries, particularly those who use expertise as advanced as HPAL. He pointed to their environmental information in Indonesia and China.
For the reason that Harita Group ventured into mining within the early 2000s, it has clashed with native communities a number of occasions, together with on Obira, the place journalists who tried to report on the consequences of the mine have been detained and intimidated by safety personnel employed by Harita, Ratuela mentioned.
Sian Choo Lim, head of sustainability at Harita, mentioned that there could also be an “picture” that the corporate has not achieved sufficient to guard the setting, however that it’s unfounded. “We’ve by no means had any points with the Kawasi group,” she mentioned.
Lygend and its subsidiaries have been cited in China for violating environmental laws at the least 4 occasions in as a few years, in response to a Submit evaluation of statements launched by Chinese language provincial governments. These citations, made as lately as final yr, embody exceeding commonplace emissions of smoke and mismanaging waste.
Zhang Baodong, a Lygend consultant, declined to handle these violations. “What we’ve achieved [at Obira] is already very as much as mark,” he mentioned. “I’ve nothing extra so as to add.”
Indonesian corporations are conscious that HPAL is a “completely totally different” expertise from what they’re conversant in and that the waste administration is especially tough, mentioned Meidy Katrin Lengkey, head of the Indonesian Nickel Mining Affiliation. “However as corporations, we are saying, so long as there’s a regulation, we’ll be certain to comply with.”
Environmental laws in Indonesia have lengthy been troublesome to implement as a result of they’re typically delegated to faraway provincial governments, which aren’t solely strapped for funds however vulnerable to corruption, activists say. Now, they are saying, even these laws are being rolled again in some instances to draw overseas funding.
Villagers, consequently, concern they’re defenseless.
“The federal government is meant to guard us,” mentioned Arnikus Jinimaya, 66, a Halmahera resident who mentioned he misplaced his land to the Weda Bay Industrial Park. “However now, we see they solely defend those that have cash.”
Luhut, the senior minister, scoffed at the concept officers have been overlooking social or environmental safeguards. There are issues “right here and there” with the nickel-refining business, he mentioned, however the authorities is greater than capable of care for the nation’s assets with out “the lecturing” of environmental activists — particularly these from carbon-emitting Western nations.
The tall, mustachioed former basic has spent the previous few years engineering the expansion of the nickel business, personally inaugurating new HPAL amenities and courting figures reminiscent of Tesla chief govt Elon Musk. At cupboard conferences and worldwide summits, he has repeatedly made the case that the worldwide vitality transition presents the largest financial alternative for Indonesia because it gained independence in 1945.
“This,” Luhut mentioned, leaning over his desk to level at a graph charting nickel progress, “goes to rework Indonesia.”
In June 2021, a number of months after the refinery on Obira started working, Luhut visited the island, donning a pink onerous hat as he examined the brand new HPAL expertise. Liyus and different residents of Kawasi mentioned that they had anticipated him to cease at their village, the place they hoped to point out him the rivers that had began to run pink and the timber that had died when their roots have been lined by sludge from the mine.
He by no means got here, locals mentioned.