By Katharina R. Lestari
Abdul Gafar, a 31-year-old Indonesian fisherman, says he now has to wear a face mask each day after an oil spill at a port in Balikpapan, in East Kalimantan province.
A fire near the port as a result of the spill later killed at least five people — all fishermen.
The spill, caused by a fractured underwater pipeline, has reached Kampung Baru a floating village located about four kilometers from the port, where he, his wife and two children live.
“We’ve had to wear face masks since the incident on March 31. We can’t stand the smell. It’s very strong and smells like diesel fuel,” he told ucanews.com.
“We often get headaches,” he said.
Worse, the fuel from the spill has coated the pillars of his wooden home raising fears his house could go up in flames.
“We have to be very careful which means cooking in a neighbor’s kitchen. His home has not been touched by the spill yet as rocks have prevented the fuel reaching his house,” he said.
Most houses in the floating village, home to about 7,000 fishermen and their families, are covered by the spill. Only a few remain clean as rocks surround them.
“We can’t go fishing, either,” he said, adding that he could earn about 200,000 rupiah (about US$15) per day from fishing or collecting crabs.
The spill also resulted in a personal loss for Gafar.
His cousin, Agus Salim, 40, was one of the fishermen killed in the fire.
State of emergency
According to Suseno, who heads the Balikpapan Disaster Mitigation Agency, the fire was probably set off by a spark close to where a vessel was docked at the port and was quickly put out.
Of the five men who died, “the last body was found by a search and rescue team on April 3,” he said.
Efforts were still ongoing to mend the fractured pipeline belonging to the state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina.
In the meantime, the spill has spread over an area of around 12 square kilometers badly affecting several communities along the coast.
Lucia Dian Wulandari, who lives in Margo Mulyo village, can also smell the fuel.
“The smell is very strong particularly after rain,” said the 44-year-old parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Dahor.
Authorities in the city — a major mining and energy hub and home to one of the few oil refineries run by Pertamina — had declared a state of emergency.
Environmental groups have called on the government to take responsibility for what they call an ecological disaster, conduct an investigation and prosecute those found to be at fault.
“We want the administration of Balikpapan city to sue the company which caused the spill,” said Topan Wamustofa Hamzah, an advocacy manager from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.
“We also want police to enforce the law and immediately name a suspect,” Hamzah said, during a protest on April 4 in front of the mayor’s office to demand immediate action to stop and clean up the spill.
A similar demand came from Father Fransiskus de Sales Sani Lake, coordinator of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the Society of the Divine Word in Kalimantan.
“Also make sure that those affected by the spill are safe and can return to their normal lives as soon as possible,” he said.
For Gafar, that cannot come soon enough.
“We just want to fish. If it takes too long, where can we go fish?” he said.