Australian oil spill class action trial begins in Federal Court

17 June 2019
The Montara oil spill of 2009 in Northern Australia that saw thousands of barrels of oil pour into the Timor Sea over 70 days and destroyed the livelihoods of 15,000 seaweed farmers as a result, will go to trial in a Federal Court class action beginning in Sydney today.

Australia's leading class action law firm, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, will run a 10-week trial representing over 15,000 Indonesian seaweed farmers in a case against the oil company PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd.

On 21 August 2009, following an horrific explosion, the Montara oil rig began uncontrollably spewing oil and gas into the Timor Sea, in Australian waters 690km west of Darwin and 250kms south-east of Rote Island, Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia. The oil finally stopped gushing on 3 November 2009.

Principal lawyer from Maurice Blackburn, Ben Slade, said the company responsible for the oil spill needs to be held accountable for the devastation that ensued.

"Our experts contend that approximately 6,000 barrels of oil per day contaminated the sea – that's akin to pouring over 70 million litres of sludge into the ocean over the months that the environmental disaster dragged on for," Mr Slade said.

"We are now 10 years on from this environmental disaster and the oil company responsible and its wealthy Thai parent (PTTEP) continue to deny the devastating impact their oil spewing out uncontrollably for months on end had on Indonesian seaweed farmers."

Lead plaintiff for the action is Daniel Sanda. Mr Sanda's case claims that the seaweed industry in Rote Ndao and Kupang, Indonesia was destroyed by the oil company's failure to safely operate the Montara Wellhead.

Seaweed – known as "green gold" to the Indonesians– transformed the regions in the early 2000's as the alternative livelihood brought in new opportunities for local communities to boost their subsistence lifestyle. Following the oil spill, the industry rapidly declined and farmers who relied on it to make a living found themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Over 30 Indonesian witnesses – including seaweed farmers who witnessed the oil arrive and destroy their crops – and several internationally renowned experts on oil spill modelling, chemistry and environmental impact will give evidence in the trial.

Greg Phelps, a barrister who has been a driving force in bringing this action to life for affected farmers, said compensation was well overdue.

"People had their livelihoods destroyed through no fault of their own, but through the negligence of a giant oil company – they deserve justice," Mr Phelps said.