An oil company’s response to the scale of one of Australia’s largest oil spills defies common sense, a judge said.
Thai company PTTEP Australasia was recognized in March for failing in its duty of care to thousands of Indonesian seaweed producers after more than 180,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Timor Sea in 2009.
The crops in the Rote / Kupang region have been wiped out, affecting farmers with expertly estimated incomes on whom more than half of the households in the region rely.
The Federal Court settled a dispute between the farmers and the oil company on Monday over parts of the region affected by the oil spill.
The region is similar in size to Geelong or the central coast of New South Wales and is home to over 150,000 people.
PTTEP argued that the court could not find beyond a few dozen specific locations where farmers or community members told the court they had witnessed oil or algae damage.
This was based on his evidence that oil moved in lines and “tiger tails”, not in waves.
Lawyers for the farmers argued that witness evidence could be used to infer that the Montana oil spill reached and caused algae damage on all of the coastal islands in the Rote / Kupang region.
The judge concluded that it was likely that the oil was widespread and present around coastal areas from September until at least November 2009.
“It would defy common sense to think that the oil from the H1 well blowout only reached the (referenced) locations and no other locations in the coastal areas of Rote / Kupang,” Judge David Yates said Monday.
The spill also likely caused, or at least contributed materially, to the “rapid and dramatic loss” of local seaweed crops, he said.
But the judge stopped before concluding that the damage to every seaweed farm in the area during the relevant period was caused by oil, as the court had not heard from farmers in all villages.
The decisions bring the parties closer to the settlement of the class action lawsuit, initiated in 2016 on behalf of 15,000 farmers.
Lead litigator Daniel Aristabulus Sanda, who lived on around $ 2,000 a year before embarking on seaweed cultivation on Rote Island, received 245 million Indonesian rupees (AU $ 24,000) plus interest for losses over a six-year period.
The PTTEP had told authorities and the court that the oil was spilling at no more than 400 barrels per day.
But the court found it was gushing out at an uncontrolled rate of more than 2,500 barrels per day – with a very large portion of the oil spilled untreated with dispersants.
The PTTEP admitted that it had been negligent in the suspension and operation of the well, but disputed that it owed a duty of care to the farmers who it said had failed to prove that the oil was in a form toxic to algae cultures.
An expert in algae cultivation, marine biologist Iain Neish, told the trial that Indonesia is now the world’s main source of tropical algae and that the industry is an extremely important livelihood for communities in the Rote / Kupang region.
Associated Australian Press