Acquitted of Pollution Charges, Newmont Mining Takes on a Times' Reporter

Accusations by reporter Jane Perlez against a mining company in Indonesia made the front page in 2004, while the company's 2007 acquittal was relegated to Page 8. Now the company is suing.

A September 2004 front-page story by Jane Perlez on Newmont Mining Corp., "Spurred by Illness, Indonesians Lash Out at U.S. Mining Giant," all but accused the corporation of illegally dumping harmful waste from its gold mines into the ocean, resulting in widespread health problems among nearby villagers in Buyat Bay.

The story was heavily slanted against Newmont, with claims of sick locals given much higher visibility and credibility than the company's denials, which came off gruff and defensive.

Occasional hedging statements like "No definitive cause has been found for the illnesses among the villagers" were overwhelmed by images of villagers, including babies,whose "health problems were evident at almost every turn," including cysts and lumps. The story also included a parade of environmental scientists affiliated with liberal groups claiming harmful effects. The company blamed the health problems on bad sanitation and poor nutrition.

This story helped Perlez win the 1005 Whitman Bassow Award from the Overseas Press Club for foreign reporting. That same year, the Indonesian government took the company and its executives to trial (with Perlez's story introduced as evidence for the prosecution). This April the verdict came back - and it turns out the company's denials of wrongdoing were accurate.

Donald Greenlees reported for the Times April 25:

"An Indonesian court acquitted Newmont Mining Corporation, the American mining giant, and one of its senior executives on Tuesday of charges of polluting a bay here with toxic waste from a now defunct gold mine, in a case that became a litmus test of foreign investor confidence in Indonesia.

"Ending a 21-month trial that pitted an emboldened national environmental lobby against Newmont Mining, a panel of judges found there was no evidence to support criminal charges that the company had polluted Buyat Bay, off the island of Sulawesi, with toxins including arsenic and mercury."

But the Times covered Newmont's acquittal in more muted terms, putting the story inside the paper on Page 8, not on the front page, as it had done with Perlez's initial story.

Now Richard Ness, the president of Newmont's Indonesian unit, has filed a civil lawsuit for $65 million against the Times and reporter Perlez over the pollution accusations made by the paper. He wants the paper to run an article on the newspaper's front page for 15 consecutive days saying Newmont did not pollute Buyat Bay.