Rafli Paputunang emerged from the shadows inside the wood-plank shack, and by the faint glow of a kerosene lamp, he exposed a lump on the back of his left knee the size of a tennis ball. Then another fisherman, Respi Bawole, came forward, pointing to a pair of smaller tumors in his jaw and cheek.
One after another, residents of this impoverished beachfront village stepped up to display similar growths. A mother lifted the arm of her young daughter to reveal a lump under it. Another man pulled back his T-shirt to expose a tumor on his shoulder.
For the residents of Buyat Beach, the cause of their affliction seems as obvious as the three-story industrial station rising at the entrance to their village, a structure of pipes and girders that, until last month, pumped an average of 1,700 tons of mining waste a day beyond the pounding surf.
The villagers blame Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., the world's largest gold-mining company, for poisoning their idyllic tropical bay with arsenic and mercury.
"Before Newmont came, we never had these problems," said Paputunang, 34.
Earlier this month, police capped a three-month investigation by asking prosecutors in the eastern province of North Sulawesi to proceed with criminal charges against six Newmont executives, including two Americans, for contaminating the bay. The six executives, including Richard B. Ness, director of the local subsidiary, Newmont Minahasa Raya, face up to 10 years in prison.
But Newmont officials have rejected the police allegations, saying that regular testing since mining began in 1996 has shown that mercury and arsenic levels in Buyat Bay are far below the limits set by Indonesian regulations. The company stopped mining in North Sulawesi three years ago when it exhausted the site and finished processing ore in August.
"The tailings do not pollute the bay," said Kasan Mulyono, a spokesman for Newmont in Indonesia, referring to waste products from its operations. "Based on our information from health authorities in Indonesia and North Sulawesi, there is no indication our tailings caused any health problems for local villagers."
Newmont's assertions of innocence are partly supported by a study completed last month for the World Health Organization (WHO).
"The environment has not become contaminated with methylmercury at present as indicated by the low mercury levels in fish," the report said. The study team, which included officials from Japan, Indonesia and WHO, further concluded that the concentration of arsenic and other metals in villagers' hair was below toxic levels.
Though doctors said some of the village's 300 residents are unquestionably ill, the cause remains at least as murky as the waters. The court case, according to police, is based on their own studies.
According to police Lt. Col. Kurianto: "From the results of our investigation, which consisted of taking and analyzing samples in a number of places such as in Buyat River, Buyat Beach, Ratatotok Beach and at Newmont, and also talking to witnesses as well as getting expert analysis of experts, we came to the conclusion that Newmont has polluted Buyat Beach. This company has broken our environmental law."
The police said they were unfamiliar with the specifics of the study conducted for WHO.
Before Newmont began culling gold from the earth, this was an isolated region of fishing villages set along coves fringed by forest and coconut groves. The district's main link to the rest of Indonesia remains a 70-mile ribbon of narrow road that snakes through mountain jungle to the provincial capital, Manado.
From a lush hillside overlooking the bay, Newmont gouged three pits. Rock was pulverized at an on-site plant, which extracted about 30 pounds of gold a day and treated the rest to remove toxins.
The remaining waste materials, or tailings, were mixed with water to form a liquid the color of chocolate milk and piped out into the Molucca Sea, where they were deposited 90 yards below the surface, forming a vast, underwater hill.
In the United States, such ocean dumping is barred under the Clean Water Act. Mining companies, including Newmont, use other waste disposal methods for those operations.
But in North Sulawesi, Newmont decided that underwater disposal was preferable because storage sites built on land could be damaged by the region's frequent earthquakes and heavy rain, allowing the waste to flow into the surrounding environment, according to Yustinus Widodo, the Newmont mine's acting director of external relations.
The waste disposal pipe runs right past Buyat Beach village, a collection of shacks cobbled together from corrugated metal, wood planks and thatch, arrayed along a single road near the water's edge.
Mansour Lombonaung, 50, a bushy-haired former fisherman, said Newmont had barely started dumping the tailings in 1996 when fish began dying by the hundreds. He said the fish kills continued for two years until some species had entirely disappeared from Buyat Bay.
"The community saw so many fish had died. We wanted to know if the reason was the tailings. If so, Newmont would have to relocate the village," Lombonaung said. But he alleged that the residents' complaints were not addressed by the company.
The villagers said dwindling stocks coupled with bad publicity made it harder and harder to sell fish. The men stopped going to sea. Their handmade wooden boats began to sit abandoned on the beach, paint chipping, nets fraying.
Newmont officials attributed the fish kills to the use of explosives or poison by some fishermen in the region.
Five years ago, the villagers began to complain of ailments, including severe headaches, itchy skin, numbness, leg cramps and tumors. Lombonaung said 168 residents had become sick from eating fish poisoned by Newmont waste, while activists working with the community put the number at closer to 50.
The mystery illness gained national attention after the death in July of a 5-month-old girl named Andini. Her mother, Masna Stirman, 36, said the girl was born after a difficult pregnancy with rough, blistered skin and pus-filled bumps all over her body. The girl's uncle, Anwar Stirman, said the baby had the face of a 50-year-old.
One of the last doctors to see Andini, Jane M. Pangemanan, a public health lecturer at Sam Ratulangi University in Manado, said she believed Andini died from skin cancer caused by arsenic in her parents' blood. Pangemanan blamed Newmont.
But Sandra Rotty, a physician at the local health clinic who examined Andini three times, said the baby's ailment was a common skin disease related to malnutrition and poor sanitation. Rotty explained that she had prescribed medicine that had helped cure the problem. The girl ultimately died after pneumonia was diagnosed, she added.
Rotty, who said she has examined every villager in Buyat Bay since coming to the clinic in 1999, said their health problems were the result of poverty, poor sanitation and ignorance about hygiene.
"This pattern of symptoms of disease is common throughout coastal communities, not only Buyat Beach," she said.
The disagreement over Andini exemplifies the broader dispute over the health of the bay. Three months ago, Indonesian police sampled the waters off the coast as well as sediment and fish, reporting that their laboratory found mercury and arsenic levels far exceeding government limits.
Newmont officials said they do not understand the police findings. Johnly Giyoh, a project supervisor at the North Sulawesi mine, said company employees had accompanied police during their tests and took simultaneous samples, which showed that mercury and arsenic levels were comparable to those recorded by Newmont since 1996. The readings, taken every three months at eight locations, indicated that average mercury levels were about one-twentieth the government limit and arsenic less than one-quarter, according to company figures.
"We feel like we are setting new high environmental and social standards," said Robert Humberson, the company executive in charge of compliance with Indonesian regulations.
Special correspondent Noor Huda Ismail contributed to this report.