Blame Game at Balongan
The explosion at Balongan adds to the long list of incidents at Pertamina refineries and depots. Structural changes are necessary to stop this from happening again.
THE fire at the Pertamina oil refinery in Balongan, Indramayu, West Java, shows the poor quality of management at the state-owned oil refinery. Initial evidence shows that a leak in a pipe triggered the incident that killed one person, injured 35, and forced 932 people to leave their homes.
People living in a number of villages in Balongan Regency smelled a strong odor several days before the explosion in the early hours of Monday, March 29. The smell was like that of gasoline—the contents of tank T301 where the fire started before spreading to three other tanks. They repeatedly reported the smell to officials at the site, and even organized a demonstration the night before the incident, but this was all ignored.
The initial finding also makes far more sense than the Pertamina statement that the fire, estimated to have caused losses of Rp1 trillion, was the result of a lightning strike. The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) refuted this claim, saying that its data showed there were no lightning strikes near Balongan, 12 kilometers east of Indramayu City center, that night or early morning.
It is unfortunate that Pertamina has turned refinery and oil fires into ‘routine incidents’. In the last 13 years, there have been eight major incidents, from the explosion at the Cilacap Refinery that killed two workers in 2008, to the fire at the Balikpapan Refinery last year.
Most of these fires were the result of pipeline leaks or operator negligence. There is clearly something wrong with the companies’ operational maintenance and monitoring management. The appointment of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama as President Commissioner has not fulfilled the hopes of the public that the former Jakarta governor would be able to reform the management of the Pertamina bureaucracy.
Major changes to the management are the best medicine for the chronic sickness at the company. Those accidents happened because the lack of proper management in supervising, handling and protecting company asset. The government has to immediately start an audit and evaluate the performance of those who are responsible for the fire at Balongan. Only by doing that, Pertamina has a chance to put an end to these series of unfortunate incidents.
Reforms to refineries is another urgent issue. This is a government priority for reasons of energy resilience and reducing the count account deficit. This undertaking will require huge investment. Repeated incidents like the case in Balongan could deter potential investors away.
Therefore, the government needs to give Pertamina a shock therapy. The police could investigate the alleged leak in relation to Article 359 on negligence leading to death, or other articles in the Criminal Code. The environment and forestry ministry could also demand answers from Pertamina because it has frequently caused environmental disasters, including the oil leaks in Balikpapan Bay in 2018 and in the waters off Karawang the following year. Without radical changes, it is highly likely that there will be more explosions like that at the Balongan refinery.