Oil spill now a $200m+ class action for seaweed farmers

3 August 2016
More than 13,000 Indonesian seaweed farmers whose livelihoods were devastated by an avoidable oil spill on the Montara oil field will today launch a class action in Sydney’s Federal Court.

Australia’s leading class action specialists Maurice Blackburn Lawyers will run the case, providing the full weight of its class action expertise and experience to Greg Phelps of Darwin firm Ward Keller – a long-time advocate for the affected seaweed farmers.

The class action lead plaintiff is Indonesian seaweed farmer Daniel Sanda, on behalf of himself and other seaweed farmers against the company that operated the Montara wellhead platform, PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd (PTTEPAA).

On 21 August 2009, following an horrific explosion, the Montara oil rig began uncontrollably spewing oil and for more than 70 days, gas and oil from the rig gushed into the Timor Sea, in Australian waters 690km west of Darwin and 250kms southeast of Rote Island, Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia.

It is estimated that in excess of 300,000 litres of oil per day contaminated the sea – equivalent to pouring 10 Olympic swimming pools of toxic sludge into the ocean over the months the spill continued. The leak was finally plugged on 3 November 2009.

The impact was a tragedy for thousands of Indonesian seaweed farmers located in the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, many of whom had moved from being subsistence land-based farmers to having enough money to send children to university.

Ben Slade, Class Actions Principal and Managing Principal of Maurice Blackburn in NSW said the economic impact was disastrous for the farmers, and continues to be to this day.

“There was nothing that these farmers could do to protect themselves against the impact of an oil spill from Montara, and to see their hard work and the possibility of tertiary education for their children literally wash away, has been devastating,” Mr Slade said.

“The impact continues to hurt the Nusa Tenggara Timur community, and our investigations show that the operator of the oil rig has a serious case to answer for cutting corners that endangered lives, the environment and the livelihoods of thousands of seaweed farmers.

“If the company thought that this issue would go away because the farmers are Indonesians, or because they didn’t understand their legal rights, they were sorely mistaken.

“These people have found their voice, and they now have powerful allies to help them be heard and to speak for them in the pursuit of justice.

“This case is a perfect example of how the Australian class action regime provides access to justice for people who would otherwise have no voice and no recourse against their corporate wrongdoer.”

Greg Phelps of Ward Keller, who has been a driving force to bring this action to life for affected farmers, said there was no doubt the farmers deserved compensation.

“For too long, PTTEPAA and the Australian Government have turned a collective deaf ear to the calls for redress. The oil company has relied on the poverty of the victims, hoping the problem might go away. It is time for the polluter to now face its responsibilities,” Mr Phelps said.

“Now, a well-funded class action led by Maurice Blackburn means that, finally, the justice and respect overdue to them is within reach for these salt-of-the-earth farmers, who lost so much when Montara pollution flowed into their seaweed plots.

The case is secured by financial backing through Harbour Litigation Funding Limited which operates globally from its UK and Hong Kong offices.

“Although we invest in a wide range of commercial litigation, it is particularly rewarding that our financial support helps those whom otherwise may not get access to justice,” Ruth Stackpool-Moore, Head of Harbour’s Asia-Pacific hub said.