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In an Indonesian Bay, Fish, Tumors and Controversy; Verdict Nears Over US Mining Giant's Toxic Waste Claims

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BUYAT BAY, Indonesia -- Junaidi, a 20-year-old fisherman, proudly shows off his catch as children play nearby in the turquoise waters of Indonesia's Buyat Bay.

"I would not move anywhere else, where else would you easily get this much fish?" asked Junaidi, pointing to a tub full of fish caught in the bay.

Like many in this tranquil and remote coastal community, Junaidi rejects claims that the bay on the northern tip of Sulawesi island has been polluted by US mining giant Newmont.

The firm, the world's largest gold miner, has been charged with dumping tonnes of toxic waste, including mercury and arsenic, into the pristine bay from its local mine before it was shut in 2004.

A court in nearby Manado is expected to rule Tuesday on whether Newmont's local subsidiary and its head poisoned water around the bay over several years, thereby sickening villagers and killing marine life.

Although Junaidi cares little of the case, several thousand residents, including from a nearby village, as well as foreign investors and environmentalists, anxiously await the outcome of the final chapter in the three-year controversy.

Some from the village, also called Buyat, just outside the bay and downhill from the defunct mine, complain of tumours, skin rashes and headaches -- illnesses they blame on Newmont's waste.

Jania Ompi, 44, has a tumour the size of a fist on her back and can barely see out of one eye.

With little energy and in constant pain, Ompi said she relies on her adult children to collect coconuts from their trees and tend the maize plants.

Despite five months in a provincial hospital for treatment on the tumour and for an operation on her eyes, she said her suffering continues.

"It is better to die than live like this," Ompi said. She added that her husband, Abdullah Mokodompit, had a tumour removed from his side last year, and is now bedridden most days with chronic asthma.

Other families, also suffering from illnesses, have relocated from the bay, after complaints first emerged of pollution in 2004, a community leader said.

"We asked the government to relocate people from the bay who were suffering the most," said Faisal Paputungan, who has aches in his feet and cramps.

The 64-year-old grandfather said every month about 200 residents of Buyat village visit a local health centre.

"Before 1999 the number of people coming to the centre was a lot less than that," said Fatlun Gonibala, a nurse at the centre.

Many villagers, on both sides of the court case, started arriving in Manado Monday on trucks and in buses for the verdict.

"We have come far to hear the judges' decision," said fisherman Anwar Stirman, who left the bay after the complaints were made.

Although the villagers blame the pollution, studies of water and marine life around Buyat Bay have shown conflicting results.

A World Health Organisation-backed report and testimony from doctors and experts, during the 20-month trial against Newmont, showed mercury and arsenic levels were well within normal limits.

But Budi Haryanto, an epidemiologist in the University of Indonesia, said a study conducted for the government showed unacceptable levels of the poisons in samples taken from some locals.

"Whatever Newmont does, it cannot cover the fact that there was a problem and it came after the mine opened," he said.

Back in Buyat Bay, boat owner Gasmin Maku is grateful for the money Newmont has poured into the town. A new resort has opened up bearing its name.

"Life is good. There is plenty of business during the holidays," said Maku, who takes visitors from the resort on sight-seeing trips in his boat and children on tyre rides around the bay.

Newmont agreed last year to pay 30 million dollars in an out-of-court settlement of a civil suit with the government over the pollution.

The deal, which did not see the Denver-based company admit any wrongdoing, stipulates the money be spent on environmental monitoring, as well as health, education and infrastructure projects.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of, its staff or its advertisers.

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