‘We are afraid’: Erin Brockovich pollutant linked to global electric car boom
By Sourced Externally
February 20, 2022
AGuardian investigation into nickel mining and the electric vehicle industry has found evidence that a source of drinking water close to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines is contaminated with unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium (Cr6), the cancer-causing chemical more widely known for its role in the Erin Brockovich story and film.
The investigation also found evidence suggesting elevated levels of lung infections among people living close to the mine.
Recent years have seen a race between mining companies to gain control of the world’s largest nickel reserves in Indonesia.
Nickel, an essential component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, could bring transformational wealth to a country where Covid has pushed the number of people in poverty up to 10.19%.
Yet people living on the remote Obi Island, which has recently become home to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel mines, just want clean and safe water.
Unlike other minerals used to power EVs such as cobalt and lithium – which have been linked to environmental damage and human rights abuses –nickel’s supply chain has so far gone largely unscrutinised.
The mining companies operational on Obi Island say their works pose no threat to local communities. Yet in the village of Kawasi, people are scared.
One villager, Richard*, says that since the mine arrived the water has become dangerous to drink.
“In the past, before there was a company, even though we lived without electricity, we were safe. Now we are afraid,” says Richard*. Water samples taken by the Guardian near Kawasi and tested at government-certified laboratories suggest high levels of contamination from hexavalent chromium (Cr6), a cancer-causing chemical.
The villagers also claim that since the mine arrived, people have been falling sick.
The Guardian was told by the village midwife clinic of more than 900 cases of potentially deadly acute respiratory infections (ARI) among the approximately 4,000 residents of Kawasi in 2020. More than half of the cases were reported to be in newborns or toddlers aged four and under.
According to Indonesian health officials, the ARI prevalence in Kawasi was just under 20% in 2020, compared with a national average of 9%. Aside from the midwife clinic there was no active local health centre in the village when the Guardian visited.
“The difference [since the mining started] is enormous. The beach was still clean, the sea was not muddy like this and not red yet. People still fished in front of their houses,” says a nurse who has lived in the village since 2009, before the mine started operating. “The trend of [higher] ARI cases began at the same time as [mining] exploration also began,” adds the nurse.
“I keep thinking: is there any future for the children?” says Maria*, who grew up in the village.
Given its extreme remoteness, it is unsurprising few activists or journalists have visited Obi Island to talk to residents until now. From the capital, Jakarta, it takes a three-and-half hour flight, an overnight boat and another two hours at sea to reach Kawasi’s port.
The plywood buildings and sporadic streets lights in Kawasi couldn’t feel more distant from glitzy city showrooms acclaiming fossil fuel-free travel.
As you disembark you can hear the constant creak and crash of cranes as they distribute their loads around the busy mining operations. The $1bn site, owned by the Indonesia-based Harita Group and China’s Lygend Mining, digs and processes nickel for use in EV batteries.
The Chinese battery component producer GEM has signed an agreement to purchase nickel from the company, PT Halmahera Persada Lygend. GEM supplies battery components to many of the world’s leading EV battery manufacturers, including Chinese-owned CATL, which controls about 30% of the global battery market.
The ultimate beneficiaries are likely to be many of the most well-known EV brands, with nickel from these mines used to produce batteries that could end up in cars sold by Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen (VW).
Booming nickel prices and a “battery arms race” have seen a rush to develop mines but there are fears that regulatory oversight has failed to keep up with the pace of development.
“They [the Indonesian government] are trying to remove red tape to make the industry more attractive for investment, but without proper environmental assessments, it could be risky given the way the industry is heading,” says Indonesian nickel mining expert Steven Brown.