120-square-kilometer oil spill off Indonesia caused by broken pipeline, official says

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Indonesia’s state-owned energy company on Thursday blamed “an external force” for damaging its undersea pipeline, which in turn caused a massive oil spill off the port city of Balikpapan on Borneo island.

The spill has affected nearly 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of water and 60 kilometers (37 miles) of shoreline, forcing local officials to declare a state of emergency.

The leaking oil caused a fire on a fishing boat and a ship carrying coal on Saturday and killed five people, while leaving more than a thousand sickened.

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Divers sent to verify damage

A spokesman for Pertamina said divers equipped with side-scan sonars had inspected the steel pipeline and confirmed the damage. The cracked pipe was dragged about 100 meters from its original position, the firm said.

Pertamina had initially denied that the spill was from its pipeline, despite the insistence of environmental groups.

An energy ministry official said a coal ship with a Panamanian flag dropping anchor was likely to blame for the rupture.

“We suspect the pipe was dragged by the ship that caught fire,” Oil and Gas Director General Djoko Siswanto told reporters.

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“At the time it was bad weather, so they had to drop anchor,” Siswanto said, noting it was an area where ships were not supposed to anchor.

Mangrove wetlands and marine mammal habitats were affected by the spill, which also killed fish and other sea animals, according to the country’s disaster management agency.

A policeman scoops oil from a beach (Reuters/Antara Fotos)

Emergency crews and local residents have collected the spilled oil to prevent further damage to the coastline

Gas station smell

Balikpapan city secretary Sayid Fadli said Wednesday the waters offshore reeked like a gas station. The city has distributed masks after more than 1,300 people suffered breathing problems, nausea and vomiting.

The oil firm meanwhile has deployed containment booms to prevent the spill from spreading further and to recover the oil.   

Thick clumps of oil were still visible in some areas on Thursday, but “much less than the several days prior,” Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya said in a statement.

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Balikpapan is a bustling mining and energy hub, sitting on a shipping lane serving one of Indonesia’s biggest thermal coal mining regions.

The oil refinery, which received the crude oil through the pipeline, is now being fed by a second smaller undamaged pipe, as well as oil tankers.

Officials said the owner of the coal ship could face charges over the deaths resulting from the spill.

mm/bw (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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