Anne Barker – Thousands of Indonesian seaweed farmers have won a long-running case in the Federal Court and stand to gain substantial compensation over Australia's worst offshore oil spill, which destroyed their crops in 2009.
On Friday, the Federal Court upheld a claim by Daniel Aristabulus Sanda, who led a class action on behalf of 15,000 seaweed farmers in coastal and island areas of West Timor.
Mr Sanda – a seaweed farmer at Oenggaut on the island of Rote – sued PTTEP Australasia, which operated the Montara oil rig in the Timor Sea.
Federal Court Justice David Yates has ordered the company to pay Mr Sanda almost 253 million rupiah ($22,600) plus interest, for lost income after his seaweed crop was destroyed by the spill.
He also sought further submissions to help determine how many other seaweed farmers are also entitled to compensation, and how much.
Lawyers for Mr Sanda told the ABC they are delighted with the court's decision, and estimate the total damages bill could run into the millions of dollars.
In August 2009, the Montara oil platform's well-head blew out, causing a massive oil spill that continued unabated for 74 days.
The rig was in Australian waters but the oil slick drifted across the Timor Sea and into Indonesian coastal areas.
The 15,000 farmers – some of whom gave evidence to the Federal Court – have or had seaweed crops in coastal areas around West Timor, on the island of Rote and other smaller islands nearby.
Mr Sanda told the court last year the oil had destroyed his entire seaweed crop. He first noticed yellow-grey blocks, the size of golf balls, in the waters around the crop in September 2009. Within days, he said, the seaweed had turned white and then died.
His business had never fully recovered and although the seaweed was now growing again, it had never provided as much income for him as it did before 2009.
About 30 other farmers gave similar evidence.
The oil company has admitted negligence in suspending and operating the oil well, but always denied the oil ever reached Indonesian waters, or could have caused such damage.
It argued that even if the oil had reached the Indonesian coastline, it would have effectively disintegrated and therefore not have been at a concentration that was toxic to seaweed. It also contended that it did not owe any duty of care to Mr Sanda or other seaweed farmers.
But Justice Yates in his judgement said that PTTEP Australasia – an Australian based subsidiary of a Thai national oil company – did owe a duty of care to Mr Sanda and other farmers, and had breached that duty.
"I am satisfied that oil spilled from the H1 Well blowout reached certain areas of Indonesia ... including the area where the applicant grows his seaweed crop," he said.
"I am satisfied that this oil caused or materially contributed to the death and loss of his crop.
"I am satisfied that, although difficult to assess, and although attended with uncertainty, the applicant's loss can be calculated, and that he is entitled to an award of damages."
Justice Yates said that Mr Sanda had suffered a loss of income for several consecutive years after the spill, and by his calculations he was entitled to almost 253 million rupiah in compensation.
If all 15,000 class action members are ruled eligible for compensation, the total damages cost could run into the tens of millions of dollars, according to lawyers from Maurice Blackburn, which represented the seaweed farmers.
In a statement posted on their website, PTTEP said it acknowledged the decision but was disappointed with the outcome.
"PTTEP emphasises the judgment relates to Mr Sanda's claim, and that the claims of all the Group Members are statute barred and must be determined separately," the statement said.
"The court's decision does not negate the requirement for individuals to demonstrate their actual loss and damage."
PTTEP said it was considering available avenues of appeal.