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Deadly Collapse at Chinese-Owned Nickel Smelting Plant

Workers were engulfed by a wall of black sludge.

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PALU, Indonesia (AP) — Two bodies have been recovered following the collapse of a nickel waste disposal site in Indonesia, in the latest of a series of deadly accidents at Chinese-owned nickel smelting plants on the Southeast Asian country's Sulawesi island, officials said Friday.

The victims were operating two dump trucks Thursday in the disposal area when they were engulfed by a wall of black sludge-like material, a type of soft gravel that is removed in ferronickel burning, said Dedy Kurniawan, a spokesperson for PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, known as PT IMIP.

Rescuers managed to pull the men's bodies out after a three-hour operation, he said, adding that the company was investigating what caused the accident.

Authorities are also working to determine whether negligence by the company led to the deaths, said local police chief Supriyanto, who like many Indonesians uses a single name. He said a preliminary investigation showed a crack at the bottom of the disposal site caused the mountain of waste to collapse.

It was the second deadly accident this year at Chinese-owned nickel smelting plants in Central Sulawesi province, which has the largest nickel reserves in Indonesia.

Nickel is a key component in global battery production for electric vehicles.

In January, two workers, including a Chinese national, were killed in riots that involved workers and security guards at PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry, another Indonesia-China joint venture located in neighboring North Morowali regency.

Last year, a loader truck ran over and killed a Chinese worker while he was repairing a road in PT IMIP's mining area, and an Indonesian man burned to death when a furnace in the company's factory exploded.

Nearly 50% of PT IMIP's shares are owned by a Chinese holding company, and the rest are owned by two Indonesian companies. It began smelter operations in 2013 and is now the largest nickel-based industrial area in Indonesia.

The nickel smelting plants in Indonesia are part of China's ambitious transnational development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Three Chinese workers last month filed a complaint to Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights, alleging that their health is deteriorating due to dust and smoke exposure while working seven-day weeks without a break at PT IMIP. They added that workers there don't have adequate safety equipment.

Data collected by the Mining Advocacy Network, an Indonesian watchdog, showed that at least 22 workers from China and Indonesia have died in nickel smelting plants in Morowali and North Morowali regencies in Central Sulawesi province since 2019, including two Chinese nationals who committed suicide.

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