Asia-Pacific

Montara leaves questions across Timor Sea

For some Indonesian communities, the Montara disaster is more than a hazy recollection of an oil rig on fire - it's a disaster that's still unfolding.

Empty fishing nets, weeping sores, mysterious deaths and mass dolphin strandings.

In Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara islands, all these problems and more are being blamed on an oil spill in Australian waters five years ago.

The company responsible for the 2009 Montara disaster, PTTEP Australasia, says there's no credible evidence that supports the complaints.

Our neighbours across the Timor Sea from us want evidence, too.

Five years after Australia's worst offshore oil industry disaster, there has been no research into the environmental impacts in Indonesia's land and waters.

On August 21, 2009, workers were evacuated after a blow out on Montara's West Atlas rig, 250km off Australia's coast.

Over more than 10 weeks, at least 30,000 barrels of oil spewed into the Timor Sea, but the actual quantity will never be known.

While the operators kept trying, and failing, to plug the spill, the Rudd federal government approved the use of chemicals to disperse the oil.

Even so, its spread was vast. Satellite pictures showed a sheen over 90,000 square kilometres.

When the oil finally stopped, studies found Australia's environment escaped long-term damage, and inquiries ended with those remote reefs and coasts.

But fishermen off Rote Island had captured grainy mobile phone footage of muck and dead fish on the water's surface.

They are still waiting for someone to explain what they saw, and what has happened since.

In one of Indonesia's most disadvantaged areas, the fish catch has plummeted, the seaweed industry has been crippled and illnesses have plagued people who work on the water.

The men who videoed the oil live in the village of Oesapa, near West Timor's capital Kupang.

Lasman Ali says they could smell it before they saw it - a "lake" of oil on the sea's surface.

Since then, Ali says there's barely anything to catch in the fishing grounds that once sustained hundreds of families.

He now relies on the charity of neighbours and a few cents his wife Rosna makes from selling sweet drinks to survive.

He can't afford to send his sons to primary school, so they mostly play in the sand outside their rusting tin home.

The only hint that Oesapa was a thriving fishing town is a few boats on the beach, and boys drying small fish in the sun.

Haji Mostafa says they've lost about 70 per cent of their income.

He guesses about 20 per cent of children have been pulled out of the local school as their fishing families move to other islands, or like Ali, save every cent until things improve.

Mostafa thinks he knows what killed this industry, and he wants someone to acknowledge it.

"We've been here for generations, the only cause we could think of is the oil," he says.

Another industry experiencing losses since 2009 is seaweed farming.

In the village of Tablolong, production peaked in 2008 when 500 tonnes was harvested for the cosmetic industry.

In 2009, production fell below 400 tonnes. Now they can barely yield 10 tonnes of seaweed that isn't diseased.

It's not only the seaweed that's sick.

Villagers complain of itchy skin and sores that never heal, which doctors can't explain. Some also report eye irritations and breathing problems from "vapour" on the water.

In nearby Lifuleo, only three seaweed farmers remain, after the sudden death of Philipus Liman in April.

His community fears his death is somehow linked to the rashes, and the dead seaweed, and reports they've heard of dolphin and whale strandings.

Widow Maria Liman Mulik says her husband took up the seaweed business in 2002. The rashes appeared in 2010.

"They disappeared then came again. I don't know why," she says.

Reluctantly, Maria will now tend what little seaweed will grow. She has little choice.

Here, the difference between poverty and prosperity is a house made from tin or concrete blocks.

Maria's home is made of blocks, built in better times, and swept spotlessly while her family mourns their breadwinner.

Representing these people is a vocal West Timor businessman, Ferdi Tanoni, who says the isolated region suffers from being out of sight and out of mind to Indonesia and Australia.

He now has Indonesian government backing to lobby Canberra, but it's not compensation he's asking for, it's science.

"We will go to the Australian government to protect our rights," he says. "This all began in their territorial waters."

The company behind Montara, PTTEP Australasia, say they are always open to dialogue with the Indonesian government.

PTTEP's official report on the spill says satellite images showed no impact to the Indonesian coast or inshore waters.

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