Fire at Chinese-owned Indonesia nickel smelter kills 13 workers, injures 46

Taufan Bustan
Palu, Indonesia
Fire at Chinese-owned Indonesia nickel smelter kills 13 workers, injures 46 Three workers look on as a fire engulfed a furnace at PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel in Morowali Regency, Central Sulawesi, Dec. 24, 2023.
Chica /BenarNews

A deadly furnace fire at a majority Chinese-owned nickel plant in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, claimed the lives of 13 workers – nine Indonesian and four Chinese nationals – and injured 46 others Sunday, a plant official said.

Dedy Kurniawan, a spokesperson for the industrial complex where the smelter is located, said the fire broke out around 5:30 a.m. during repair work, which had ignited flammable materials, and the blaze was brought under control by 4 p.m. local time the same day.

“We have formed a team to handle the impact of the accident,” Dedy told BenarNews.

Preliminary investigations suggest that molten metal residue, or slag, leaked from the smelter’s furnace and contacted flammable materials, which caused a furnace wall to collapse and the subsequent blaze, according to Dedy.

The incident at the Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel’s facility in Morowali regency marks the latest in a series of accidents raising safety concerns in Indonesia’s largest nickel processing area.

The PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), where the facility is located, is a joint venture between China’s Tsingshan Steel Group and Indonesia’s Bintang Delapan Group. 

The integrated nickel-based industrial park covers 2,000 hectares  (4,942 acres) and employs more than 81,000 people, including 10,000 foreign workers, mostly from China.

At least 30 workers died at two nickel plants with majority Chinese ownership in Morowali and North Morowali regencies from 2019 to 2023, with 20 fatalities occurring at IMIP, according to Muhammad Taufik, the director of the Central Sulawesi Mining Action Network, an Indonesian environmental group.

“This is a big incident,” he told BenarNews. “An evaluation is necessary to find out the extent of the implementation of the safety and health management system in nickel plants.”

In April, two workers at IMIP died after being buried under a heap of nickel waste at a processing plant. 

In January, a Chinese and an Indonesian worker were killed in a riot at a plant.

Meanwhile, Arnold Firdaus, who heads the provincial labor department, vowed an investigation into the latest accident.

“A team has been formed and will soon depart for Morowali to investigate with a team from the Manpower Ministry,” he told BenarNews.

“Of course, an evaluation will be carried out so that similar incidents do not happen again in the future,” he said.

Nickel powerhouse

Indonesia holds the world’s largest reserves of nickel, crucial for electric vehicle batteries, and wants to become a global leader in nickel production. 

In a speech at Georgetown University during his U.S. visit in November, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo strongly pitched the country’s nickel industry as a way to advance the green economy.

But concerns about environmental and safety practices and working conditions have dogged the Southeast Asian nation’s nickel industry, where China is a big investor.

The Chinese investment came with technology transfer, helped create jobs and developed local infrastructures, but a report from the Paramadina Public Policy Institute, a Jakarta-based think tank, also described environmental degradation, social conflict and unfair competition as a result of the investment. 

China is also funding projects in Indonesia as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a worldwide infrastructure-building program. 

In 2022, Indonesia had more than 42,000 Chinese workers, accounting for about 44% of all expatriates in the country, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower.


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