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Class action suit launched over oil spill

AAP logoAAP 3/08/2016 By Toby Mann

A class action lawsuit worth more than $200 million would help reboot the Indonesian seaweed farming industry seven years after it was devastated by a massive oil spill, lawyers say.

More than 13,000 Indonesian seaweed farmers have joined the class action against Perth-based gas producer PTTEP Australasia claiming that more than 300,000 litres of oil and gas spewed daily into the Timor Sea after an explosion at a Montara oil rig on August 21, 2009.

It was eventually plugged on November 3, but by then about 10 Olympic swimming pools worth of toxic sludge - comprising oil, gas and dispersant - had spilled, lawyers for the seaweed farmers claim.

"It was a major environmental disaster," said Maurice Blackburn class action principal Ben Slade as the class action was filed in Sydney's Federal Court on Wednesday.

"The company responsible, PTTEP Australasia, does not accept that the spill caused much damage but Maurice Blackburn has been told of the near-destruction of the livelihoods of over 13,000 Indonesia seaweed farmers whose crops were poisoned."

The spill killed the lucrative crops.

Seaweed rotted and died in three days and successive crops kept failing for the next few years, lawyer Greg Phelps, who is described as a driving force behind the class action, said.

"The oil company has tried to hide behind the poverty and the remoteness of the region," he said.

"It is unacceptable."

Montara's owners PTTEP Australasia have always denied the spill reached Indonesia but Mr Slade said the economic impact of the spill was still being felt by the seaweed farmers seven years on.

Growing seaweed had helped many people transition from subsistence farming to the point where they could afford to build homes and send their children to university, lead plaintiff and Indonesian seaweed farmer Daniel Sanda said through an interpreter.

"It has been the most rewarding work I have undertaken in all my years of working," the 58-year-old, who began growing seaweed in 2002, said.

"I had very good crops in 2009 prior to the oil spill destroying them and things have been very difficult recovering since the oil spill."

It is expected that PTTEP Australasia will "vigorously" fight the action.

"The company has indicated to us that it does not accept that it had a duty of care to Indonesia seaweed farmers ... nor does it accept that the oil, in fact, even killed the seaweed nor does it accept any of the losses that are claimed," Mr Slade said.

"They just didn't care about Indonesians, they didn't care about impoverished Indonesian farmers."

In July 2015 the Australian Lawyers Alliance released a report describing how thousands of fishermen and seaweed farmers were worse off, with some suffering from respiratory trouble and skin ailments.

The case is being backed by Harbour Litigation Funding Limited.

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