An ICBC-backed coal plant linked to sea turtle deaths in Indonesia

29 Apr, 2021

Written by Rassela Malinda

December 17, 2019 was a gloomy day for villagers of Sepang Bay, Bengkulu. Their legal challenge against a coal-fired power plant was rejected. As a result, they remained not only evicted from their homes but without justice for the death of 28 local sea turtles who died on a beach, just after the coal plant construction began.

According to the Minister of Environment and Forestry regulation concerning protected plant and animal species, hawksbill sea turtles belong to protected fauna. Therefore, the construction of the coal plant can be subject to sanctions. Before the trial, on December 10, 2019, local residents came to the Bengkulu governor’s office and handed over four dead sea turtle carcasses discovered around the Sepang Bay coal-fired power plant operation area. The locals demanded the government to do laboratory tests as early as possible in order to reveal the cause of the turtles’ death.

Polluted environment

Rustam Efendi, a 63-year-old Sepang Bay resident said that he had never seen anything like that.

Efendi assumed that the coal power plant was the main cause of the massive death of sea turtles. “Air Bahang disposed off a thick, foamy, white, and foul-smelling liquid waste that might contaminate the environment and habitat of these animals”. Air Bahang is a local term to refer to the saline water used to cool the power plant. 

Ali Akbar, executive director of Yayasan Kanopi Hijau Indonesia (Kanopi), an environmental NGO in Bengkulu, supported the locals’ arguments. “Teluk Sepang is known as a sea turtles’ stopover place, also a place to lay their eggs. The Environmental Impact Analysis should have anticipated the threat to turtles, but they did not”.

In their official statements, Kanopi argued that there was no data on the death of sea turtles in Bengkulu based on the records of the Marine Studies Program at the Faculty of Agriculture at Bengkulu University. “Surprisingly, the deaths coincided with the coal-fired power plant trial period before fully operating,” added Ali Akbar.

In June 2019, local residents had filed a lawsuit in the State Administrative Court, hoping to challenge the local government, as well as the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) for what they believed was an unlawful environmental permit, granted to the ICBC-backed Bengkulu coal plant project. 

In their Amdal document, the Coal-Fired Power Plant (PLTU in its Indonesian acronym),  had claimed that 92% of locals consented to the coal-fired development before construction began. 

However, with support from a local environmental group, the villagers alleged that their consent had never been sought out and that it had been falsified in the project’s environmental impact assessment reports. In an interview with local media, Olan Sahayu, Kanopi’s energy campaigner, stated: “Residents have  been against the power plant due to environmental concerns since the beginning.”

A local coalition against the coal plant

Hamidin, 57, is a local one of the Sepang Bay locals, remembers a PLTU public consultation event he attended in November 2016. “I expressed my objection to the project, I said the plant would potentially pollute the environment. We have lived with coal dust all this time, so the plant will further harm our environment,” he explained.

A month after the consultation, Hamidin joined a local coalition that collected 429 signatures from residents who opposed the construction of the PLTU. They protested outside local government offices and sent a rejection letter to the Governor of Bengkulu.

ICBC funded the US$270 million coal plant. The project was meant to be operated by PT Tenaga Listrik Bengkulu, a joint venture between the Chinese-owned company PowerChina resources and the Indonesia-based construction equipment company Intraco Penta. 

The local government has regularly shown public support for the project, as it aims to help overcome the problem of electricity shortages in and around Bengkulu. Recently, the Bengkulu governor, Ridwan Mukti, claimed that the project was both safe and highly sophisticated, 

But officials and NGOs affirm that this power plant will bring harm to the environment and local residents.

Head of the Bengkulu Regional Disaster Management Agency, Soemarno, as quoted by Antaranews, argued that the coal-fired power plant is located in a disaster-prone zone.

The National Disaster Management Agency in April 2019 released a catalog of tsunami-prone villages and sub-districts. Based on this catalog, Bengkulu has 90 villages and/or sub-districts in the ‘medium category’ of vulnerability to tsunami. One of them is Teluk Sepang. 

Investigating the turtles’ deaths

Due to pressures to investigate the death of the turtles, the governmental institution Bengkulu-Lampung Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) conducted a laboratory test in 2019.

On January 31st  2021, they announced that the bacterial infection was the primary cause of Sea-Turtles’ death.

Additionally, the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency of Bengkulu also analysed the phenomenon of the death of the turtles. The agency argued that there was a cold anomaly in the Bengkulu sea conditions in the last quarter of 2020 which most likely affected the marine biota.

However, locals and environmental activists were unsatisfied by these results. “If it was due to the coast anomaly, why was it only sea turtles around the coal plant? The West Coast of Sumatra in Bengkulu has a length of over 300 km,” insisted Effendi. He believed that this phenomenon was an unprecedented event.

Olan Sahayu, responded to the results of the laboratory test in the previously mentioned interview. Sahayu observed: When they announced the results, I noticed that they did not explicitly mention the cause of the turtles’ deaths.” Furthermore, Kanopi demanded further investigation about the turtles’ deaths.

The local coalition is now preparing for the worst-case scenario: to continue to find these protected animals dead around the coal-fired power plant location.

Sepang Bay coal power plant could be an example of what might happen if investors continue to fund fossil fuel projects in Indonesia. Even before it is fully operating, the project has brought environmental degradation, opposition from the local residents and showcased a lack of environmental protection from the government.

About the author:

Rassela Malinda, Indonesia

Currently working as a field researcher in Yayasan Pusaka Bentala Rakyat, Rassela is passionate about issues related to agriculture. She’s into Zumba, and enjoys Shiba-Inu memes. 

Rassela is looking forward to improving her knowledge about climate issues.