The developer of the Java 7 coal power plant claims it is environmentally friendly, but the lives of fishermen and the surrounding environment reflect otherwise.

This story first published in Indonesian on 4 June 2021 by

By Abdus Somad

In his small boat powered by a six horsepower engine, Muhammad Iqbal Elbetan (22) moves along the Berung river in Serang, Banten Province,  in the darkness of the night. It is four in the morning and Iqbal is already heading to a fishing ground about one kilometer away.  Two fishing rods and boxes containing live baits can be vaguely seen lying on the deck of his boat, under the low light.

But midway, Iqbal suddenly turned his boat around and returned to where he had come from. Not too far head, is a sillhoute of a large coal pontoon at the jetty of the Java 7 coal power plant.

“I am scared I would be hit by it,” Iqbal explained his decision when met in Kramatwatu, in the sub-district of Bojanegara, Serang, on April 30, 2021.

The Java-7 power plant with the capacity of 2 x 1,000 MegaWatt s(MW) is the largest power plant in Southeast Asia.  It was developed by  PT Shenhua Guohua Pembangkit Jawa Bali (PT SGPJB)— a consortium between China Shenhua Energy Company Limited (CSECL) and PT Pembangkit Jawa Bali (PJBI), a subsidiary of state utility company PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN).

CSECL holds a 70 percent stake in the power plant while the rest is owned by PJBI. Java 7 is not the only venture of CSEL in the production of dirty energy in Indonesia. The company that is China’s largest energy and infrastructure enterprise  also built the Mulut Tambang power plant in East Kalimantan, and  the Sumatra Selatan I and the Simpang Belimbing Muara Enim power plants in South Sumatra. All of them are coal-fired.

The company claims that the Java 7 plant is an environmentally friendly industry because it uses the ultra supercritical (USC) technology that reduces the amount of carbon and waste released into the sea.

But Iqbal saw with his own eyes how waste released by the plant is turning the water murky, covered in foam, with fetid smell.

Another fisherman ,Lukman (50), also complained about the activities of the coal pontoons.  He said on average he could count three to four coal pontoons navigating in the area every day.

Lukman, who has been living in Pulau Panjang, an island just across the Java 7 plant for decades, said that the activity of the power plant, including the operations of the coal pontoons and the waste released into the sea has brought bad news for the marine ecosystem around the island.

Coral reefs are now muddy, cracking, and have white spots. Fishermen are complaining. There used to be plenty of fish, this year they caught nothing. The difference is really huge.

Lukman, fisherman.

He said that before the power plant began to operate, he could catch 500 kilograms of fish, mostly  snappers, milk fishes and crabs, in one trip. “Nowadays, just to get 10 kilograms is already rather difficult. Many fishermen are facing economic difficulties. Many have changed profession,” he said

Juardi (51), who heads the fish auction house in Kramatwatu, confirmed the dive in catch among traditional local fishermen. In 2017, a fisherman could bring 20 kilograms of fish from one fishing trip. After 2019, the amount fell to about five kilograms.

The day’s catch was no longer enough to buy essentials and could not even cover the costs of fishing at sea. “Some sunk their boat, others sold them,” Juardi said at the auction house on April 30, 2021.

He said that the number of boats of between five and ten gross tonnage (GT) operating in the Banten Bay had continued to diminish since 2019. In 2017 there were around 150 units. “Nowadays there may be only 15 left,” he said.

*The number of fishermen in Serang sub-district. Source: Banten Marine and Fishery Agency

However, local fishermen can no longer operate in the Banten bay area. Most of them are forced to travel as far as the Thousand Islands and even Lampung, across the Sunda Strait, to catch fish. One fishing trip now costs them around Rp750,000 to Rp1 million just to purchase the 80 liters of diesel oil needed per day. “The costs are increasingly high and we may not even get any (fishes),” Juardi said.

A researcher from the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, Armyanda Tussaidah said that the white spots that are now appearing on the corals are caused by temperature changes in the sea. Corals, she said, is very sensitive to such temperature changes. A mere increase of between two and three degree Celcius is enough to slow down their growth.

“Temperatures of above 33 degree Celcius is what causing the coral bleaching phenomena,” Armyanda told on Monday, May 17, 2021.

Ecosystem degradation

The Banten Maritime and Fishery Statistics reports that in the 2014-2020 period, there has been a continuous degradation of the coral reef, mangrove and sea grass ecosystems in and around the islands of  Panjang, Lontar, Tunda, Satu, Dua and Lima, especially in the last three years.

In 2014, the Serang district registered 628.5 hectares of mangrove groves but five years later only half of it was left, at 330 hectares. Coral Reefs have dwindled from the 250 hectares in 2014 to just 117 hectares by 2019. While the sea grass bed also underwent massive shrinkage in the same period, from 424. hectares in 2014 to just 120 hectares by 2019.

The destruction of these maritime ecosystems have impacted the catch of fishermen. In 2018, their catch stood at a mere 1,291 tons.  While catch in the previous years have reached over 8,000 tons.

*Mangrove, coral reefs and sea grass coverage (in hectares) in Serang sub-district. Source: Banten Maritime and Fishery Office.

The head of the Banten Province Maritime and Fishery Office, Eni Sulistyani, did not deny the degradation of the marine ecosystem in and around the Bay of Banten. “It may be significant but academically, this has not been studied further,” Eni said.

She told on Friday, May 28, 2021 that her office is still looking at data related to the number of fishermen, the fishing fleet, and  their annual catch, “We have difficulties with data. We are still putting the data together. We will check on that,” she said.

Bad impacts

A research conducted by the Faculty of Fishery and Marine Sciences of the Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java in November and December of 2019 found heavy metal content in the sea grass around Panjang and Lima islands, both located near the Java 7 power plant.

The results of the research which was published in the Indonesia Journal of Marine Science showed that the sea grass beds around these two islands were contaminated with between 0.03-11.12 parts per million (ppm) of lead. A level that is exponentially higher than the safe level of lead content regulated by the environment ministry that is allowed in sea water (0.0005 mg/l).

Faishar Fallah, a researcher of the Diponegoro University said that the heavy metal pollution at the two islands is inseparable from industrial activities including the Java 7 coal-fired power plant. “Industrial activities, the sea traffic near Panjang and Lima islands, are suspected to be the source of the lead contamination,” Faishar said on Wednesday, May 18, 2021.

In December 2020, also tested a sample of the sea water around the Java 7 power plant at the laboratory of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the University of Indonesia and the result showed that the solid suspension content at 890 mg/l, eight times higher that the permitted level. The Ministry of the Environment set the healthy standard at 100 mg/l.

Measurement of the water temperature using a simple thermometer showed 37.9 degree Celsius, rising by six degree Celsius whenever waste was released into the sea.  The permissible waste temperature set by the environment ministry in 2009 is up to 40 degree Celsius but another decree by the same ministry in 2004, limits temperature rise of sea water due to waste release to not exceed two degree Celsius.

Yayat Ruhiyat a chemical engineer professor at the Sultan Agung Tirtayasa University in Banten said that changes in colour and temperature of the sea level cannot be taken for granted. He said poor waste water treatment is one of the main causes.

“A good waste water treatment installation would not result in smelly nor muddy water,” Yayat told on Monday, May 24, 2021.

Yayat recommends that before the condition worsened further, the government should conduct an inspection of the waste water treatment facility of the Java 7 power plant . The power production process, he said , should not have any bad impacts on the life of people living around the Bay of Banten.

“The waste released should not be fetid or foamy. There needs to be government supervision,’ he said.

Fikerman Saragih from the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), agreed with Yayat and said that the heavy metal pollution in the sea off Serang is proof of the government’s weak supervision and called on the government to conduct an audit on industries operating on the coastal area of Serang. “The government should have courage,” he told on Friday, May 21, 2021.

Executives of companies’ that are proven of harming the coastal area and the small islands there, could face at least two years and at the most 10 years in prison under Law Number 27 of 2007 and Law Number 1 of 2014 on the management of coastal areas and small islands

Fikerman Saragih, PEople,s COalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA)

In 2018, the Ministry of Maritime and Fishery Affairs declared the waters off Banten province as a marine conservation area.

Meanwhile, the secretary of the Serang district Environment Office, Yani Setyamaulida claimed that the authorities has carried out supervision on the Java 7 power plant and this supervision is still underway.

However, Yani declined to give details on the result of this supervision. “We are supervising this. Whenever there is a finding, there should be a thorough follow up,” Yani told on Monday, May 24, 2021.

Until this article was published, the secretary of PT Pembangkit Jawa Bali, Muhammad Bardan and the spokeperson of PT Shenhua Gouhua Pembangkit Jawa Bali, Vicky Yang have not responded to requests for comments from made via telepone or Whatsapp messages.

However, a written statement issued by PT Shenhua Guohua Pembangkit Jawa Bali (PT SGPJB)  and received by in August 2020 stated that the cooling process of the Java 7 plant has lead to froth forming on the water surface. It said that the cooling system released 70 cubic meters, or 70,000 liters of cooling water per second.

Meanwhile a notification letter from from SGPJB sent to the head of the Terate Village in early April 2021 said that a testing activity on the plant’s Nett Dependable Capacity (NDC) 2 on April 22, 2021 would cause the surface of the seawater surface to be covered by foam. The company claimed that it had taken a number of steps to break down the foam.

Eko Hernawan, a researcher of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) warned the government and business owners to not undermine the pollution of the maritime ecosystem. The sea grass bed, he said, has important role in fighting sedimentation, absorbing carbon, and disaster mitigation.

It also provides a habitat for protected marine life such as turtles and dugongs as stipulated in the Environment Minister Regulation Number 20 of 2018 and Number 92 of 2018 .

“It is possible that all organisms there are exposed to heavy metal, including humans who consume the fishes,” he said.

This report is a result of series of “Journalist Fellowsea” class supported by the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ and EcoNusa Foundation

There are no comments yet. Leave a comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.