Montara oil spill class action

On 4 August 2016 Maurice Blackburn filed a class action in the Federal Court of Australia arising out of a major blowout at the Montara Wellhead Platform. Compensation is sought for financial loss and property damage suffered by Indonesian seaweed farmers whose crops are alleged to have been poisoned when the oil and dispersant reached their shores.

The class action is brought against the company that operated the Montara Wellhead Platform, PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd (‘PTTEPAA’), a subsidiary of PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited.

The lead applicant in the class action is Mr Daniel Sanda, a seaweed farmer from Rote Island, Indonesia, who alleges that his seaweed crops were destroyed by oil from the Montara Wellhead Platform reaching the coastal waters of his island. Mr Sanda brings the action on behalf of thousands of seaweed farmers whose crops were allegedly destroyed in similar circumstances.

The action is being funded by Harbour Fund II L.P.

What was the Montara oil spill?

The Montara Wellhead Platform is located in Australian waters approximately 685 kilometres west of Darwin and 250 kilometres southeast of Indonesia.

On 21 August 2009, a blowout occurred at the H1 Well, causing oil and gas to gush into the Timor Sea for 74 days until 3 November 2016. Despite PTTEPAA’s estimation that the volume of oil leaked was just 400 barrels per day, Geoscience Australia estimated that it was likely to be more like 2,000 barrels of oil per day.  If the latter estimation is right, over 23 million litres oil poured into the sea before the leak was plugged.

The Montara oil spill was one of the largest in Australian history. 184,000 litres of oil-dispersing chemicals were used in the clean-up effort.  Of the six different chemicals applied, two are known to increase oil’s toxicity to marine life.

Seaweed farming in Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia

Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) is one of 34 provinces on the Indonesian archipelago. Historically, NTT has been one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces. However, from around the year 2000, seaweed farming developed as a profitable alternative to traditional fishing and agriculture, promising to greatly improve the economy and quality of life in NTT. Seaweed was even termed ‘green gold’, such was the improvement in the standard of living as a result of its cultivation. In the years prior to the Montara oil spill, Indonesians in NTT who had previously been subsistence farmers found themselves able to send their children to university in Jakarta and Bali, construct homes and buy expensive items such as cars and motorboats.

In September 2009, the seaweed crops of thousands of farmers in NTT were destroyed. The cuttings that they would have used to plant the next harvest were also killed. The farmers persisted in their attempts to grow seaweed but many are still struggling to get back to the level of production that they enjoyed before the oil spill.

The Commission of Inquiry

The Commonwealth Government held a Commission of Inquiry into the spill in 2010. The Commission described the most likely causes of the blowout as arising from ‘systematic’ errors of a ‘more deep seated kind’. The Commission concluded that PTTEPAA’s actions did not come within a ‘bull’s roar’ of sensible oilfield practice.

The Commission recommended that the then-Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, review PTTEPAA’s operating licence at the Montara Oilfield. The Minister declined to issue a ‘show cause’ notice, which may have resulted in the cancellation of PTTEPAA’s licence. PTTEPAA was ultimately charged with four breaches of the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (Cth) and fined $510,000. However, PTTEPAA continues to operate at Montara to this day. 

Joining the class action

Seaweed farmers in affected areas who lost their crops due to the oil spill can join the class action by entering into an agreement with the litigation funder and a retainer with Maurice Blackburn and Darwin firm, Ward Keller.  It is important that anyone wanting to join the class action does so within 12 months of becoming aware of the facts material to their claim or the person will be out of time and unable to claim.

To find out more about joining the class action please contact Maurice Blackburn on (02) 9261 1488