Dozens poisoned with hydrogen sulfide gas due to PT SMGP’s operations in North Sumatra

On 27 September 2022, dozens of people in Sibanggor Julu Village, Puncak Sorik Marapi District, Mandailing Natal Regency (Madina), North Sumatra Province, were again poisoned with Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) gas due to the activities of the company PT Sorik Marapi Geothermal Power (PT SMGP). The Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM) reported that up to 28 September 2022, 87 victims were hospitalised. This is the second mass poisoning in a month and the sixth incident since 2021. Since 2021, at least 214 people have been poisoned, and five have died consequently. 

On 27 September 2022, an unpleasant odour came out of PT SMGP’s T-11 well pad operating in Sibanggor Julu Village. The smell was powerful, like rotten eggs, which is an indication of contamination with H2S gas. This odour wafted into the residential areas of the community. According to the Chief of Police, PT SMGP shared its plan to open Well T – 11 to fill the COD Unit 3 steam supply on 20 September 2022, at Well T – 11. The scheduled date changed to 27 September 2022, from 2:00 to 5.45 pm. However, at 17.30 pm, the test activity was cancelled because the well-test officer’s oxygen tank ran out, so the team stopped their work. At 6:00 pm, there was an announcement from the Sibanggor Tonga Village Mosque for the community to evacuate to a safer place at the Mount Sorik Marapi Monitoring Post, Sibanggor Julu Village.

Geothermal well flow test activities, as stated by the Director of Geothermal, Directorate General of New, Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation (EBTKE), Mr Harris, have risks, one of which is the release of H2S gas. Therefore, according to him, the process must be carried out under strict procedures. Among other things, neutralise H2S gas before the geothermal well fluid flows. Meanwhile, SMGP denies that there was a leak. The company claims that all activities are under applicable procedures and are witnessed by a team from the Directorate General of EBTKE and the Environmental Service, in collaboration with Mandailing Natal Police, TNI, Village PAM, local public relations, security forces and various other parties. 

Walhi North Sumatra said that at the time of the incident, many people were working around well pad T-11. The distance between the community management area and the mudflow point is between 200 meters and 1 kilometre. According to information from people who were near PT SMGP’s industrial site, the information, and announcements regarding the actions they carried out that day were unclear. The community said that after several minutes of widespread odour exposure, there was an appeal for people who were near the testing area to move further away immediately. Hearing the announcement, people left the area, but many people on their way home smelled the foul odour which caused symptoms of nausea, dizziness, and fainting.

Repeated incidents

It is the sixth time that such an incident takes place since 2021. There are no strict sanctions, only temporary suspensions, and PT SMGP is expected to operate again after one month. The results of investigations into the causes of various incidents have never been fully and transparently conveyed to the public. The following is a chronology of PT SMGP’s gas leaks and geothermal explosions since 2021:

On 25 January 2021, the PT SMGP-managed power plant experienced a gas leak that killed five residents and hospitalised more than 40 people. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (MEMR) temporarily suspended all company activities. At the end of February 2022, ESDM allowed PT SMGP to resume operations in less than a month. 

On 14 May 2021, there was an explosion and fire at the PLTP project owned by PT SMGP, which is only 300 meters from the settlement, so residents had to evacuate until the fire could be extinguished. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources investigated the cause of the fire. The company continued to operate, and the investigation results were never released to the public. 

On 6 March 2022, there was an H2S gas leak in Sibanggor Julu, originating from one of PT SMGP’s wells. As a result, at least 58 residents had to be treated for nausea, dizziness, vomiting and fainting. At the time of the incident, the victims claimed to be inside the house, but suddenly they smelled an unpleasant aroma. Before residents experienced H2S poisoning, PT SMGP conducted a well-opening test (weeltest) at Wellpad AAE-05. PT SMGP, through the press of Corporate Communication Nina Gultom, denied and ensured no H2S gas leak during the well opening test at Weelpad AAE-05.

There was a deliberation between PT SMGP and 58 residents of Sibanggor Julu Village, but deliberation did not solve the problem. The victims were dissatisfied with PT SMGP’s attitude regarding the recurred mass poisoning case. The company asked for time to wait for the authorities investigation into the cause of the poisoning—namely, the fastest 30 days and the longest three months. At the meeting, the community said that PT SMGP explained more about H2S poisonous gas, which the district did not understand. Residents compactly left the meeting furious and disappointed.

Officially on the ESDM website page, issued a release number: 104.Pers/04/SJI/2022 on 12 March 2022. Using the official letterhead of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, this release almost 100% contains statements and clarifications from the company. In essence, PT SMGP supports the ministry and police investigations. The results of investigations by EBTKE have never been released to the public until now.

On 24 April 2022. A hot mudflow more than 30 meters high, accompanied by a pungent gas smell, occurred at PT SMGP’s geothermal drilling rig. A total of 21 residents were exposed to toxic gas, rushed to the hospital, and residents’ rice fields were submerged in mud. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Press Release Number 176.Pers/04/SJI/2022, on 25 April 2022, said that wild bursts are a potential hazard in drilling activities, so procedures and equipment for prevention must also be well prepared. In the release, the Directorate General of EBTKE, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, said it immediately issued five recommendations for handling but did not explain them in detail. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources also claimed to have formed the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources Investigation Team and has issued a letter of instruction for the temporary suspension of drilling activities and well flow tests to SMGP with consideration of safety and environmental protection aspects. 

On 16 September 2022 about eight Mandailing indigenous people around the PLTP project managed by PT SMGP were exposed to and poisoned with H2S gas on. Initially, the residents smelled a foul smell that caused vomiting and had to be taken to Panyabungan Hospital and Permata Madina Hospital. Alpin Husein (9), Yusri Isa Mahendra (20), Parwis (40) and Nurhabibah (62), Humaidi Nasution (25), Nazaruddin Tanjung (65), Hasmar Husein Nasution (35) and Sangkot Masripa Nasution (48) were treated at Permata Madina Hospital. They were rushed to nearby hospitals.

PT SMGP through PT SMGP’s Head of Corporate Communications, Yani Siskartika, said no H2S or toxic gas was found at the Geothermal Power Plant project site in Sibanggor Julu Village. She claimed that the measurement condition of the fixed gas detector showed no H2S or zero, and none of the H2S alarms was active. 

On 27 September 2022. The H2S leak at SMGP Mandailing Natal PLTP occurred again. JATAM recorded that 87 people poisoned by H2S gas were rushed to the hospital. 

Omission by the State

Sorik Marapi Geothermal Power Plant is part of the national strategic project in the 35,000-megawatt electricity program. SMGP obtained a Geothermal Business License (IUP) in 2010 and a Geothermal License (IPB) in 2015, with a covered area of 62,900 HA. The PLTP is targeted to produce a total electricity capacity of 240 megawatts. In 2016, KS Orka Renewables Pte. Ltd. took over 95% of PT SMGP shares from its previous sponsor. PT SMGP has reached the Commercial Operating Date (COD), Unit I of 45 MW in 2019 and Unit II of 45 MW in 2021.

The government, especially ESDM, continues to allow PT SMGP to operate, even though similar events have occurred repeatedly. Even when five people died on 25 January 2021, the ESDM ministry only temporarily suspended the company’s operations. The ministry allowed PT SMGP to resume operations less than a month later. In fact, in a meeting with the House of Representatives on 3 February 2021, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, through the Directorate General of EBTKE, conveyed the results of field investigations conducted by ESDM through geothermal inspectors. According to the findings of geothermal inspectors, the causes of the incident were the existence of immature activity planning, violation of established procedures, equipment and supporting installations that were not ready/complete, weak coordination between activity implementation teams, inadequate implementation of socialisation to the community, and inadequate competence of activity implementation personnel.

The Police are also the same. They are always present in every incident and say they are conducting an investigation. However, this investigation process has never been transparent. As with the most recent incident, there has been no decisive action from the central government. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, on September 30, 2022, claimed to have formed an investigation team, but to date, no findings have been made public. 

The Madina district government, as conveyed by the deputy regent of Madina, Atika Azmi Utammi Nasution, has urged the central government to revoke the license and stop the operation of PT SMGP. The authority to revoke geothermal permits according to the geothermal law is the central government’s authority (Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources). Meanwhile, the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM), Arifin Tasrif said on 30 September 2022 that he had not yet decided whether to license of SGMP as the project implementer would be revoked or not. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources claimed to have deployed a team to investigate the leakage incident at the project. However, almost two weeks after the incident, ESDM has not released the investigation results to the public.  

Walhi North Sumatra, in its release on 28 September 2022: 

  1. Urged the government to immediately close all company activities for the safety and health of the people and the environment;
  2. Asked the President of the Republic of Indonesia to remove the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, Directorate General of New Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation which we consider weak in responding to the recurrence of this incident;
  3. Requested the Provincial Government of North Sumatra and the Mandailing Natal Regency Government to take steps and not appear to be taking omissive actions against the recurrence of events at PT Sorik Marapi Geothermal Power and issue recommendations to the President of the Republic of Indonesia to close all activities carried out by PT SMGP;
  4. Requested KOMNAS HAM to investigate alleged human rights violations and omissions committed by the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources and other government elements; and,
  5. Urged the North Sumatra Police to take firm action if violations occur.

Detailed Case Data
name of the location: Well pad T-11 PT SMGP (0.7071385600646807, 99.57235950311616)
administrative region: Indonesia, North Sumatra Province, Mandailing Natal Regency, Puncak Sorik Marapi District, Sibanggor Village
total number of victims: 87
period of incident: 27.09.2022
perpetrator: company
perpetrator details: PT Sorik Marapi Geothermal Power (PT SMGP)
Issues: safe environment, right to health, indigenous peoples
Further HRM News:

NumberName, DetailsGenderAgeGroup AffiliationViolation
87unknownunknownunknownindigenoushealth, safe environment