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Addressing inequalities of power: Landmark class action seeks justice for 15,500 Indonesian seaweed farmers affected by 2009 Montara oil spill

Author: Ben Slade, Legal Counsel at Maurice Blackburn (Australia), Published on: 27 May 2019

Jelena Rudd speaks with Ben Slade, of Maurice Blackburn, legal counsel in Sanda v PTTEP Australia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd, a class action brought on behalf of 15,500 Indonesian seaweed farmers.

In 2009, the Montara wellhead, managed by PTTEP Australasia, released thousands of litres of oil into the Timor Sea for over 70 days from an uncontrolled leak. The oil spilled over the south of Indonesia and destroyed seaweed crops. In 2016, Daniel Sanda, the lead applicant, brought a claim in Australian courts on behalf of 15,500 Indonesian seaweed farmers against PTTEP Australasia. The legal action seeks damages for loss of seaweed crops arising from the oil spill.

What has made this lawsuit possible? What is the legal argument/ cause of action? 

In the common law of Australia, when you owe a duty of care and if you are negligent and your negligence, or carelessness, causes foreseeable injury, the courts can impose an obligation to compensate the victims.

[…] We say that the defendants in this case, PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) (Pty Ltd), a division of a significant Thai mining oil exploration engineering company (PTTEP), managed the Montara Wellhead No.1 negligently. In August 2009, the wellhead, located in the Northwest shore off Port Headland in Western Australia, equidistant between the North of Australia and the Southernmost part of Indonesia, blew out, spilling oil and gas into the Timor Sea for about 74 days. PTTEP says that the consequences of that were minimal, that there was some destruction of wildlife, that there was some environmental damage around the oil rig that was near Ashmore Cove, and there was short term damage. But, as far as the spread of the oil was concerned, PTTEP said it didn’t get very far - the Australian coast was fairly clear of environmental damage, and otherwise there was no injury caused. The Indonesian Government and citizens of Indonesia think otherwise. Around 2012, an Australian lawyer, Greg Phelps, who was assisting Indonesian fishermen whose fishing vessels had been destroyed by the Australian navy, met a man called Ferdi Tenoni of the West Timor Care Foundation who was very concerned about the losses suffered by Indonesian fishermen and seaweed farmers.

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Related companies: Petroleum Authority of Thailand Exploration and Production (PTTEP) PTT