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It was around 0330 in the morning when the Margasari Village Chief, Ride, woke up.

He usually awoke early for morning prayers anyway. But that day, Saturday 31 March 2018, he woke up because some of the villagers came to report an extraordinary thing. Oil was creeping into their villages.

This was not a good thing for the village at all. Because more than half of the village was built above the water, on the sea of Balikpapan Bay, in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The oil grew larger and thicker. It came from a leak in Pertamina’s Refinery Unit V pipe – 25 meters under sea level.

Ride moved fast. His first priority was to calm people down and warn them not to light fires.

“I called authorities, police, military. Asking for help, together we should calm the community down and prevent them to do any activities involving fire. For instance smoking, also it is customary here people grill fish in the morning,” he recalled.

That morning, everyone cooperated and they worked hard to clean up the village.

A couple of hours later, they finally had time to take a break and enjoy some breakfast. But before long, Ride was startled by some community members running toward him.

“Chief, Chief, there is fire at sea!”

Together, they ran to the village area closest to the sea, only 400 meters away from the fire. They saw the fire was raging, smoke was soaring, and, worst of all, it was spreading.

“Chief, should the villagers be evacuated?” one of the people, worried about their safety, asked.

“No, not yet,” replied Ride, after assessing the situation.

Lucky for them, at that time the tide was turning and the sea was moving away from under their houses. And, thankfully, the fire was put out several hours later.

But those who happened to be at sea when the fire started were not so lucky. The area is a busy one, and there were several fishing boats, and even cargo ships, around.

Official records released by the government four days later on 3rd April say 5 people died because of the incident.

Once the fire was out, it didn’t mean the mean the problem was dealt with. The most obvious and immediate issue was health. “The oil odor was very strong since the first hours,” said Ride.

He checked the local health Center (Puskesmas), which was full. Hundreds of people, men and women of all ages, were getting treatment.

“The doctor informed me the majority of illnesses were respiratory problems,” said Ride.

He predicted at least 1,250 families in the village were exposed to the impacts of the spill.

According to Hilda Meutia, researcher and Microbiology expert, the impacts of an oil spill are not always immediate, but also bring the risk of long term and accumulated impacts for human health, as well as the sea and coastal ecosystems.

“Oil spills contribute significantly to the release of toxic and carcinogenic heavy metals and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) compounds. In many cases of oil spills around the globe, sea and coastal ecosystem are also contaminated by several heavy metals such as Cadmium, Plumbium, Vanadium, and Nickel,” Hilda explained.

“Yes, there were also visible and immediate impact from direct expose of the spill, such as skin and respiratory disease. However heavy metals are known to bring some risks of long term and accumulating impacts. For instance Plumbium (PB) can cause immunity, reproduction, nerve problems. Kadmium is a carsinogenic material, can cause nausea, headache and stomach problem,” she added.

I visited Margasari Village several days after the fire happened. Yes, the oil is less thick and the strong odor has gone. But it doesn’t mean the problems are gone.

According to Hilda, “the impact of oil spill can last for years, even can cause permanent damage.”

And at the time of this writing, the livelihood of the community is still hampered. The fishermen are still unable to fish. The marine worm farmers are out of the job, and the mangrove forests around the village are destroyed.

Find out more about this on the next blog titled, “Have You Ever Seen a  Black Mangrove?”

Hikmat Soeriatanuwijaya is Greenpeace Southeast Asia Media Campaigner

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