INDONESIA: Mr. Clean: Accused of Poisoning Indonesian Villagers, Rick Ness Tries to Prove His Innocence
Rick Ness doesn't have a moment to spare. As we rip through the blue
equatorial water, he is oblivious to the engine's roar, the hot, salty
wind, the stomach-turning chop. "While we have the time," he
hollers, ruddy strands of hair flying about like palm fronds in a
typhoon, "why not ask Jerry here about the month he spent in a
Jerry Kojansow doesn't need much prompting. "We were scared,"
the 36-year-old marine biologist shouts. Violent criminals and
suspected terrorists packed the cells. "The guards played tricks
with our heads," he recalls; at one point they locked him in a
room that slowly filled with smoke. "We realized they can do
anything to us."
No matter how many times Ness has heard it, he seems rapt by the
testimonial, which encapsulates his own looming nightmare. While
medical issues helped Ness stay out of the slammer when Kojansow and
five other Newmont Mining employees were locked up in 2004, he now
faces charges that could result in a 10-year sentence. A government
prosecutor claims that as president of Newmont Minahasa Raya, an
Indonesian subsidiary of the Denver-based gold-mining giant, he was
responsible for polluting a pristine bay with millions of tons of mine
waste that some have blamed for a rash of deaths and illnesses.
But if bringing criminal charges against a powerful American was a
bold step for Indonesia, Ness responded with equal nerve. Since 2004,
he has waged a full-time PR and legal campaign to clear his name, with
Newmont backing him up at a burn rate of up to $1 million a month.
Other U.S. executives have joined in, as has the Bush administration.
Together, their arguments have amounted to a blunt message to
Indonesia and other developing nations: Send expat executives to jail,
and expect foreign investment to evaporate.
Paradoxically, perhaps the most effective argument for the
exonerate-Rick-Ness campaign is Ness himself. An affable, 57-year-old
Midwesterner, he's tried hard to assimilate here, converting to Islam,
marrying an Indonesian woman, and paying to send hundreds of poor
children to school. He commands enormous sympathy from almost everyone
he knows, including many reporters who have covered his story,
resulting in a slew of friendly articles in the world press. He has a
25-year history with controversial mines; before Newmont, he worked at
Freeport McMoRan's operation in Papua, notorious for its environmental
devastation and its collaboration with a brutal military. Yet he
insists, with genuine conviction, that no abuses have ever taken place
under his watch. I've come along on this private tour of the alleged
crime scene-Buyat Bay, a cove notched into Sulawesi, the world's
11th largest island-to try to reconcile the two faces of Rick Ness.
And it's a testament to the man's persuasive charm that I've actually
agreed to go diving here, right next to Newmont's underwater waste
Tall and pale pink, with a slight paunch, Ness has blue eyes creased
into a permanent squint. Normally a jeans-and-oxford-cloth man, on
this excursion he wears black loafers, pressed gray chinos, and a
light-blue button-down shirt. He holds forth with the enthusiasm of a
Fuller Brush salesman, tempered by an undertow of fear and exhaustion.
"Why, the whole thing is an elaborate hoax!" he exclaims.
"There was no pollution and nobody got sick. It's as simple as
that." Over and over, he insists that both he and Newmont are
victims of Indonesian politics. "Sometimes," he tells me at
one point, breaking into tears, "I don't know if we're the
football or the goalpost."
Newmont doesn't deny piping 5 million tons of heavy-metal-laden mine
waste into Buyat Bay. "But it was as clean as sand," Ness
insists; the only impact "was smothering seafloor worms." He
claims people familiar with the facts see things his way. "The
local government has been promoting the bay as the next undiscovered
dive spot. Now why in the world would they do that if it was
polluted?" He smiles, revealing a row of tobacco-stained teeth
and a single gold incisor.
in 1994, newmont mining-then a midsize Nevada gold producer striving
to become a global leader-broke ground in the mountains above Buyat
Bay. Over the mine's eight years in operation, the company extracted
$672 million worth of gold from its $200 million investment. Locals,
too, hoped for a payoff. In a place where zinc-roofed huts cram every
inhabitable flatland, where most survive on what fishermen in flimsy
outriggers can haul from the sea, jobs paying a few dollars a day
seemed a godsend.
To dispose of its waste, Newmont built a pipe that channeled the waste
to the bottom of Buyat Bay; it assured residents that the fish would
be fine. But just months after the mine opened, villagers began
complaining that schools of silvery carcasses were washing up on the
beach, putrid and stiff. On the fish they caught, the men found
strange tumors that oozed an oily black goop under their fillet
knives. Villagers took the dead fish to the local university (one of
many beneficiaries of Newmont's largesse), which refused to test them.
At one point, the pipe burst, spewing waste into shallow water.
Villagers protested, occupying Newmont's office for several hours. The
mine's community outreach workers-smart men with college
educations-told the villagers the fish were safe, and so they ate
For a while, Indonesia's U.S.-backed strongman, Suharto, kept a lid on
the controversy. But things got tougher for Newmont after Suharto was
toppled in 1998. The newly empowered environment ministry demanded
that the company abide by hazardous-waste regulations and produce an
environmental risk assessment. Neither mandate was fulfilled to
regulators' satisfaction, but with the country reeling from the Asian
financial crisis, the government was not inclined to push the
On these key events, accounts from intellectuals, the Indonesian
government, and news stories largely dovetailed. But in his Jakarta
high-rise office, Ness told me a markedly different story. He said the
mine ran smoothly and the villagers never complained about pollution
or their health. He blamed the protests on outside activists. Fish
kills in the bay, he said, were caused by locals dousing the reefs
with cyanide to speed up their harvest-a common tactic in Indonesia.
In short, he says, no one except "antimining, antiglobalization
groups" had a gripe with Newmont-until 2004.
In July of that year, a five-month-old girl named Andini died in the
quiet fishing village of Buyat Beach. From birth, she had been small
and sickly, with a grotesque scaly rash covering her body. Photos
circulated of the baby in her last days-tiny, chafed, and seemingly
writhing in pain-and Indonesian reporters swarmed Buyat Beach,
broadcasting footage of residents with tumors, debilitating cramps,
and severe headaches. Lab tests showed mercury levels in some
villagers' bodies that were triple the level the U.S. government
considers safe, and police investigators found mercury and arsenic in
the bay. (Newmont's own analysis of the same water samples found them
to be clean.)
Ness tirelessly defended his company, claiming the residents suffered
from hygiene-related ailments common in remote villages, and he
produced doctors willing to vouch for this. But in a nation rife with
distrust of multinationals in general, and Americans in particular,
his denials mattered little. Ness' name became iconic in the manner of
Ken Lay's. When we traveled to Buyat last year, he was in the midst of
defending himself in a 21-month trial focusing on pollution charges.
(The indictment skirted the question of health effects, and Newmont
has always maintained that there are none.) On April 24, 2007, the day
of Newmont's annual shareholder meeting and a week after the company
offered to sell $325 million in shares to the Indonesian government,
the provincial court acquitted Ness of all charges. "I was amazed
at how thoroughly the judges sided with us," Ness says. "It
was a slam dunk." But in June, the Indonesian prosecutor appealed
the case to the country's Supreme Court, and Ness prepared to do
Most high-profile crime suspects cower behind their lawyers; Ness
smothers journalists with attention. Our scuba trip was part of a
five-day jaunt during which Ness introduced me to local witnesses and
experts. He brought along his Indonesian wife, Nova-charming and
sharp, 14 years his junior-and it would have been easy to think we
were on a family outing were it not for the bodyguards trailing
Ness' most potent weapon is his avuncular personality, along with his
penchant for random acts of selfless derring-do. Once, after several
students were found murdered in a deep crater outside a mine, Ness, a
trained emergency responder, volunteered to spare police the macabre
and dangerous job of recovering their bodies. Another time, when a
Filipino employee got his pelvis crushed in an accident, Ness
chartered a jet without clearance from corporate headquarters or air
traffic control and sent the man to Australia. "You didn't much
care about the color of the passport or the skin," he says.
"You did your damn best to save their lives. Maybe we dented the
rules, but the guy's walking around with an artificial leg, which was
better than sending him home the other way."
"If Rick Ness put a diving board at the end of a mine pit and
told everyone, 'Okay, get up there and jump,' they'd do it," says
David Francisco, a longtime colleague of Ness'. Which, presumably, is
one reason I'm about to plunge into an alleged toxic waste site. The
other is that Ness seems eager to come along. "I haven't been
down there yet," he says. "But I hear it's great!"
The speedboat banks north, and we enter Buyat Bay-a half-moon of
tropical Eden, a few miles wide, framed by vine-draped cliffs. The
captain cuts the engine over a reef. The waste heap, Ness tells me, is
a few hundred yards away. Then, just as I'm preparing to duck-step off
the boat, he demurs. "I'll tell you what," he says to
Kojansow, the marine biologist. "I haven't dived for five years.
Why don't you give David a real good tour? I won't slow you
Forty-five feet down, I question my judgment. We see crocodile fish,
mackerel, and sea cucumbers, and Kojansow snaps photos of me in front
of brilliant anemones. But the coral looks dull and spent-nothing
you'd promote to tourists-and some of it is coated by a loamy layer,
like pillow stuffing. I grab a handful and it seeps through my
fingers, forming a mushroom cloud in the water. Then I notice that
Kojansow is wearing a full-body suit despite the tepid sea.
Ness is waiting, his hair conspicuously wet-from, he makes a point
of telling me, taking a dip. "Did you enjoy it?" he
Nearly a year after the mine closed in 2004, many villagers were still
complaining of a variety of illnesses. So with TV cameras rolling,
more than 65 teary-eyed families dismantled their homes, burning what
they couldn't carry. They unearthed Andini's tiny cloth-shrouded
corpse and carried her with them to Duminanga, a malarial outpost
eight hours away, where relief workers helped them build barracks.
The dozen or so families that remain have close ties to Newmont, and
many have collected stipends and giveaways from the company: a day's
salary to attend Ness' trial, or a free outboard engine (which is
needed to fish outside Buyat Bay). As I talk to villagers in a beach
hut one morning, a dapper man in a leather skullcap strolls in. He
introduces himself as Hadji Dahlan Ibrahim, a village chief. "The
victims complain that they're bleeding from their vagina and anus,"
he says. "But it's normal. Maybe they were just having their
period." He excoriates the activists who claimed the bay was
polluted. "The local women were crying because they couldn't sell
their fish at the market," he says. Arms akimbo, Ness chimes in,
"You can tell he's not the kind of guy who's easily
Later, Ness takes me to a nearby port, where we watch wiry men haul
fish from the deep-sea vessels owned by Ibrahim. Newmont, I learn, is
building a fish-freezing facility as an assistance project-a major
boon to Ibrahim, who controls the local industry.
Ibrahim isn't the only beneficiary of Newmont's generosity. Within an
hour of the mine, almost every government building bears a sign
touting Newmont's support. According to a study of Batu Hijau,
Newmont's other Indonesian mine, by Cornell anthropologist Marina
Welker, the company uses development money to gain the loyalty of
leaders, striving for autocratic control and routinely infiltrating
environmental groups; she even watched executives convince children
that mining waste was harmless "by letting them drink it and rub
it on their faces."
The night we arrive in Buyat Beach, Ness promises that I'll see him
eat fish directly from the bay. He organizes a beachside barbecue, a
postcard of village harmony, with an open fire and a guitar
sing-along. As we eat, a man tells me that the catch actually comes
from Ibrahim's boats, which don't go near the bay. Ness doesn't
A week later, I meet Ness' nemesis, Deputy Minister of Environment
Masnellyarti Hilman, in her Jakarta office. Hilman, who goes by
Nellie, is among a handful of respected environmental technocrats on
the ecologically devastated archipelago and she commands respect even
from her adversaries. "She was a true believer doing what she
thought was right," says one former Newmont official, who did not
want his name used because he remains close to management. "She
wasn't just another greedy official trying to jack the company."
On Hilman's office wall is a photo of John F. Kennedy inscribed,
"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses." In the 1990s Hilman
won a State Department fellowship to the Colorado School of Mines,
where she learned the importance of scientific rigor; every so often
during our interview she brandishes cinder-block-sized tomes on
When I tell her about my dive, Hilman is aghast. "You touched the
sediment?" At least, she says, I have been exposed only once, and
any arsenic I've absorbed will flush out of my body in a little more
than a week. "It's okay," she says reassuringly. "But
don't do it again."
Hilman isn't surprised that Ness has coaxed me to dive; she is in
grudging awe of his skill with the media. The Financial Times, for
example, quoted his favorite line in the indictment-that Newmont has
"caused itchiness among villagers"-while giving short
shrift to the other 71 pages of charges, including operating a mine
without a dumping permit, and discharging waste that exceeded toxic
standards by as much as a factor of 17. (Ness claims these charges
result from the government misinterpreting Indonesian law.) Hilman
shows me correspondence demonstrating that Ness, despite his
insistence to the contrary, was aware of problems at the mine by 2000;
she says the company has sought to exploit Indonesia's economic crisis
to strong-arm the government into backing off. "We're not
anti-investor," she says. "But big companies give a lot of
money to our government, so some of them think they can do what they
Flipping open an engineering text, Hilman points to a passage that
explains the heart of Newmont's predicament. Gold mines produce
enormous amounts of waste (see "With This Ring"); dumping
this waste at sea is controversial, but when doing so, experts agree
that it must be placed in the cold, oxygen-depleted depths. However,
Newmont's waste heap at Buyat sits in relatively warm water teeming
with sea creatures that are the backbone of the aquatic food chain.
Research published last year by Evan Edinger of Canada's Memorial
University found that the waste on Buyat's seafloor had arsenic
concentrations 16 times higher, and mercury levels 8 times higher,
than those at which adverse environmental effects are frequently
expected, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration. Edinger also found that, in contrast to Newmont's
claims, a significant share of the waste was in a form that could
enter the food chain, and that it had spread to within 350 feet of the
Here's the rub: Independent scientists say another few miles of pipe
would have put the waste over the continental shelf and into deep
water, drastically reducing the chance for contamination. This would
have cost around $15 million, according to Jim Kuipers, a
Montana-based engineering consultant who has worked in the mining
industry and now advises watchdog groups.
"The culture in mining is to save money wherever they can,"
says Dave Chambers, an engineer with Montana-based mining-watchdog
group Center for Science in Public Participation. "Newmont took a
risk and they got burned."
Pictures have played an enormous role in the Buyat controversy; grisly
and haunting-a woman with a massive protrusion in her belly, a gaunt
boy who I'm told has leukemia-they are pasted on placards, printed
in Jakarta newspapers, and displayed by Newmont's critics at every
opportunity. Ness inoculated me to this portfolio of horrors at our
first meeting, claiming some of the alleged victims weren't even from
the area. Then, when I interviewed relief workers and local doctors,
they suggested that I go see for myself-not in Buyat Beach, whose
sick families had already left, but in Buyat Village, located between
the beach and the mine. On a map, I noticed that it was just off a
road that Ness and I had driven down repeatedly on our detailed tour
of the area. He'd never mentioned the town.
Buyat Village is a neat settlement of small, boxy homes lining leafy
paths. Children play on the road, and men smoke clove cigarettes in
the shade. Looming above them is the now-closed mine, already largely
reclaimed by the jungle.
In addition to the arsenic in the bay, Newmont has admitted that its
mine discharged some 17 tons of mercury-which can cause learning
disabilities at very low doses-into the air from 1996 to 2001.
"That's like having 15 to 20 coal-fired power plants in your back
yard," says Glenn Miller, a mercury expert at the University of
Nevada. (Newmont argues that the amount of mercury it emitted wasn't a
health risk.) Wells in Buyat Village have also shown arsenic
concentrations up to six times the Indonesian drinking water standard,
according to a 2004 government study, which notes that tests Newmont
conducted before opening the mine found no arsenic.
Once word about my presence gets out, it seems as if almost every
family in Buyat Village has a story to tell. Nurbaya Mokoagow, a shy
32-year-old, pulls up her yellow T-shirt to show me a tumor on her
breast. Oni Tungkagi, 30, exposes one in her armpit. Ideng Tungkagi, a
fortysomething shopkeeper, rolls a marble-sized growth along her
jawbone and displays scars on her neck where previous ones have
erupted. "The doctor told me it was cancer," she says.
"But I have no money to treat it." Sumina Modeong, 25,
casually mentions that when she was three months pregnant, a doctor
removed a tennis-ball-sized lump from her breast. On her lap sits the
daughter born of that pregnancy. Her head is half bald and her left
ear is deformed, sealed over. She is three years old but has barely
grown or learned to speak.
"There are a lot of sick people here," Faisal Paputungan, a
village elder, tells me. (Relief workers have counted 367
people-about 10 percent of the population-with tumors, skin
diseases, headaches, and other complaints similar to those found in
Buyat Beach.) "We're afraid that the effects will be more visible
in 10 years. We know there's pollution in the fish, in the water we
drink and bathe in, but there's nowhere for us to go." He says
they don't want money from Newmont. "We just want them to clean
the environment and take care of our health."
the weeks after baby Andini's death, at a time when journalists were
flocking to Buyat Bay, a white bus quietly carried a couple dozen
people from the area to the provincial capital of Manado, where their
tumors were removed. The surgery was performed not at the hospital
(where it might have caused a commotion among the gossipy locals) but
in a university classroom, on wooden desks. The head surgeon, Dr.
Tangel Frans, a member of the university's medical department,
confirms that he and other doctors operated on the villagers in the
classroom; he says he has no idea who paid for the procedures or who
sent the bus. The mysterious expedition took place just before
international researchers were due in the area to investigate
Newmont's health effects.
Buyat village to Rick and Nova Ness' sprawling ranch-style house in a
swank Jakarta neighborhood. Once you pass the police post around the
corner (protecting the compound of former president B. J. Habibie),
you enter a haven of lush palms and ficuses, twittering birds, and
humming air conditioners. Whitewashed houses with terra-cotta roofs
soar above security walls topped with spiked bars. Like any wealthy
family in Indonesia, the Nesses have a staff of cooks and cleaners; a
chauffeur shuttles Rick around the teeming city in a black
Yet Ness doesn't seem quite at home among the trappings of comfort.
Before Buyat, his life was a hard slog, and the impact is visible in
his furrowed face. The backyard pool appears unused; the closest he
gets to relaxation is revving up his purple Harley at sunrise on
Sunday and rumbling out of the sleeping city into the volcanic peaks
of Java. "I enjoy riding," he says. "It clears the
In the days after the Buyat case broke, when bodyguards bearing
Kalashnikovs were posted in Ness' garage and newspapers incessantly
ran pictures of baby Andini, there were no Harley rides. Instead, Ness
hunkered down with his advisers to figure out the best response. What
emerged was probably one of the most aggressive and effective PR
campaigns ever orchestrated in the developing world.
Part of the offensive involved textbook crisis communication. Ness did
media interviews and spoke before sympathetic audiences such as the
American Chamber of Commerce. He mocked the government's evidence as
"junk science." He extolled studies that he said supported
the company's argument-one conducted by the Australian lab csiro
(and funded by Newmont), and another by researchers from the World
Health Organization and Japan's National Institute for Minamata
Disease. (See "Data Mining.")
Meanwhile, Newmont threw its full legal weight at the critics,
pouncing, for example, on biologist Rignolda Djamaludin after he was
quoted as saying that the villagers suffered from Minamata disease (an
acute form of mercury poisoning that has not been found in Buyat). A
court ordered Djamaludin to pay Newmont $750,000. More recently Ness
has also sued the New York Times, which he accuses of inflaming the
controversy with a 2004 story on Buyat Bay that he considers
unbalanced; he wants $65 million in compensation.
Ness has also exploited Indonesia's well-earned reputation for
corruption and intrigue. "Mining is a lucrative business," a
U.S. diplomat told me, echoing the claim that the prosecution was a
form of political blackmail. "There are a lot of people who would
want to get their hands on Newmont's property." Nationalists in
Indonesia have argued for expropriating foreign mines, and there have
been attacks on some facilities. B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.S. ambassador
to Indonesia, told journalists last year that he was convinced Ness
had been charged "without any evidence"; U.S. Senator Norm
Coleman (R-Minn.) wrote to the Indonesian government on Ness' behalf.
Most notably, Ness has been the subject of dozens of sympathetic
articles in outlets such as the Associated Press, the Economist, and
the Wall Street Journal. In one breezy profile, an AP reporter quoted
Ness at length, noting that he was "shocked when he first learned
that his company was accused of sickening Indonesian villagers. 'We
were not prepared to react to something that silly.'" Likewise,
the Journal ran an op-ed hailing Newmont as "an economic savior"
in Indonesia and arguing that the case "is regarded as part of an
overall indictment by environmental groups against the mining industry
in general." Tracking Ness' talking points, the piece relied on
interviews with Ibrahim and the same Newmont supporters I met in Buyat
Beach, conducted through a Newmont translator; there were no quotes
from the company's critics. Jonathon Burns, one of two coauthors, was
a 21-year-old Journal intern from Missouri who'd never been to
Indonesia. "I wrote the majority of the piece," he told me,
"but because my credentials weren't good," Journal editorial
board member Stephen Moore co-signed it.
George W. Bush visited Indonesia in November 2006, Agence
France-Presse reported that Ness' case had "cast a shadow"
on the president's trip. While traveling with Bush, Thomas Donohue,
the powerful president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told
journalists that Ness' case "will most definitely have an impact
on the foreign investment climate in Indonesia."
he didn't simply flee Indonesia, he said he couldn't fathom
"going through life as a fugitive, having people think you've
done something wrong." But beyond the bravado it was clear, too,
that his life was in Indonesia now; he felt at home here, eating
curries with his fingers and praying at the mosque, a single tall
white figure in a sea of skullcapped faithful. He hadn't lived in
America for 28 years, and what he'd left behind was not the stuff of
Born in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, in 1949, a couple years after
his adolescent sister died, Ness grew up in a farmhouse with no
plumbing; raising livestock was a hard business at the prairie's
northern edge, and to earn extra cash Ness' father worked the grain
elevators in Duluth, 250 miles away. Rick lent a hand as soon as he
could, nursing orphan lambs at age six, and rising in the frigid
winter darkness to feed the animals. In high school he fibbed about
his age so he could drive bulldozers to earn college
In the early 1970s, he completed a two-year mechanics' program at
Moorhead Technical College and married classmate Darlene Kroshus.
Caterpillar hired him to fix generators on Great Lakes ships; he was a
cog in a greasy rust-belt moil, the grind compounded by the icy,
steel-gray winters. The constant travel strained his marriage, but in
July 1975 Darlene gave birth to Eric, their first child. Soon after,
Ness endured a white-knuckle ride on an ore carrier called the Arthur
M. Anderson, in the same storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. As
waves crashed over the bridge he wondered if he'd ever see his baby
again. "This is no way to live a life," he decided.
So Caterpillar wangled him a job teaching mechanics at Moorhead. Soon
after, Eric was diagnosed with a potentially fatal clogged bronchial
tube. The Nesses stood vigil at the Mayo Clinic's pediatric surgery
ward while doctors cut through the baby's chest, replumbing his aorta.
Eric survived, but the family was manacled by the hospital bills. Ness
took on a second job fixing trucks in Fargo, but despite 14-hour days
was barely breaking even.
Then in 1979, a headhunter rang: Son, how'd you like to help train
mechanics at the Freeport mine in the Papuan jungle? It hardly
mattered where that was. By now, they'd had another baby. "If you
want to know why the hell a Minnesota flatland farm boy would go to
Indonesia," he says, "there you have it."
Phoenix-based Freeport McMoRan's operation was an industrial Xanadu in
a place where the global economy had crash-landed in the middle of the
Stone Age. It was beautiful and rugged, a land of body paint, grass
skirts, and grinding poverty. The first time Darlene took out the
trash, half a dozen locals approached to pick through it. "It
startled me so that I just handed the bag to them and ran back into
the house," she says. Darlene struggled to adjust, and the
marriage deteriorated; in 1986 she delivered a baby whose race made it
plain that Ness wasn't the father. Ness welcomed the child into the
family as his own. "This really is an indication of the type of
man Rick is," Darlene told me.
Other expats couldn't wait to leave the jungle, but Ness persevered,
and within five years was second in command at the Freeport mine.
Soon, a company geologist discovered Grasberg, which would turn out to
be the world's largest copper and gold deposit. The only catch was
that the ore sat at 14,000 feet, in a landscape so forbidding that
trucks had to be hauled up piece by piece via cable car. Freeport
turned to Ness to coordinate the logistics. "It took three, four
months for supplies to arrive," he recalls. "You had 150,000
items in inventory just to keep the place going-everything from
machine parts to coffins in case someone got killed. And
contraceptives." Ness spent more than 15 years with Freeport,
which promoted him to vice president and sent him to Harvard Business
School; he joined competitor Newmont in 1998.
That Ness might not have been aware of the dark side of Freeport's
presence in Papua is hard to imagine; yet somehow, he can almost
convince you that it's so. "The mine dramatically changed the
economy and lifestyle of the area," he says without irony,
"which is nice to see."
In fact, at the time Freeport broke ground in West Papua-then known
as Irian Jaya-the former Dutch colony was not even part of
Indonesia. Dictator Suharto, with whom the company cultivated a cozy
relationship, simply granted Freeport permission to operate there. The
mine soon became Indonesia's biggest income source, helping Suharto
colonize West Papua. It also destroyed a sacred mountain, provoking
tribes to take up bows and arrows against the foreigners. The company
maintained a powerful security force, and recently admitted to
channeling millions to the thuggish Indonesian military, which between
1974 and 1997 killed nearly 200 people in the mine's vicinity,
according to Chris Ballard of the Australian National University.
Soldiers also allegedly raped and tortured scores, and sometimes shot
natives just for garbage picking.
Nonetheless, Ness, who worked for Freeport from 1979 to 1996,
remembers warm relations with the locals. "They didn't have much,
but what they did have they were willing to share with you," he
says. His kids traded salt for bows and arrows, and attended feasts
where men in headdresses grilled pigs in huge open pits.
Ness never supervised security, but as logistics chief he had to deal
with the military, which routinely used company helicopters and
trucks; sources including Yale Law School's International Human Rights
Clinic have reported that on several occasions in the 1990s soldiers
tortured Amungme natives in company shipping containers. Ness, who was
based in Jakarta by then, says he can't recall these allegations and
that he wasn't aware of any abuses. "I'm trying to remember 10
years ago. I don't know that there were any real issues. [The
soldiers] ate at our mess hall, but there weren't many
Freeport defenders argue that the company can't be held responsible
for an army it doesn't control. But Ed McWilliams, who was a political
counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, calls the
company "a willing accomplice" to the government's crimes.
"Freeport is a dirty organization," he says. "You have
to wonder about the motivations of people who continue to work
one weekend in jakarta, Ness invites me over for Sunday lunch. His
house is decorated with statues from Papua and paintings of village
life. Nova's son from a previous marriage studies in the kitchen, amid
the fragrance of baked chicken and apple pie. In the living room Nova
introduces me to two teenage girls in head scarves, perched awkwardly
on the edge of the overstuffed couch. "The girls just happened to
stop by," she says. "They're some of the students whose
school fees we pay."
Ness, who has twice been to Mecca, says it was Islam's mandate to help
the poor, and the devotion of his Muslim colleagues, that first
attracted him to the faith. In the early 1990s, he resolved to
simultaneously study the Bible, the Koran, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
On weekends, he rode his Harley to the house of one of Indonesia's top
religious scholars, who tutored him. "We both liked coffee and
cigarettes, so we got on well." A decade after converting, he
still gets tongue-tied about his beliefs, afraid to offend. "Most
of it's similar to the Bible," he says. "The God is the
same. The Bible's got the basics, but the way of life is more
described in the Koran."
When he met Nova, he recalls, "she was a single mother. The
difference between her income and mine-it was huge. But she would
spend a certain percentage of her income to take care of orphans."
These days, he says, the family's donations significantly exceed the
2.5 percent of income called for in the Koran.
"We did this long before the Buyat case," Ness adds.
"The point is, if this is how we treat people we don't even know,
why would we treat our neighbors at the mine any different? Why would
we pollute the bay? Does that make sense?"
I wish I could answer that-or at least find some way to bridge the
chasm separating Ness' version of events and my own observations. Ness
won't yield one iota in his conviction that both Freeport and Newmont
are model companies, and that the Buyat mine has been the target of a
groundless smear campaign. When I ask if he has any regrets, he simply
reiterates his disbelief at the government's charges. "I never
expected that we'd end up with something like this," he says.
"This is beyond comprehension." He remains on Newmont's
payroll, charged with the sole responsibility of winning the Buyat
case-a job he has attacked with the same tenacity that helped him
wring gold from the wilderness. He loved running mines, he says.
"I enjoy building things. The thing is, you're creating jobs for
people who need them."
That much is certain about Ness. He likes building things, and had he
begun his career fixing medical equipment, he'd probably be running
hospitals. Instead, fate sent him to the gold fields, where in order
to create, you must destroy. He may have truly believed Newmont's
scientists when they said dumping waste into the bay was safe-the
controversial pipe had already been built when he took over-though
it's hard to imagine that, in all those years of loyally defending his
employer, he never harbored a single doubt.
was only doing what Newmont expected of him," says Sandra
Ainsworth, a former company employee who says she was fired after she
blew the whistle on pollution at a Nevada mine. "But at some
point people in those kinds of positions have to step up for what they
know is right."
- 106 Money & Politics
- 182 Health
- 183 Environment
- 195 Chemicals