Indonesia: Hot Toxic Mud Floods Homes
- 11,000 People Flee Homes as Hot Toxic Mud Engulfs Villages and
Farmland: Oil Exploration at Fault
By John Aglionby
The Guardian UK
Thursday 24 August 2006
Prospector accused of causing massive eruption. Residents complain of
Porong - Four villages and 19 factories have been submerged in a
240-hectare (600-acre) sea of mud in East Java that is growing up to
50,000 cubic metres a day in a major environmental disaster triggered
during an oil exploration venture.
A few rooftops are still visible, along with hastily constructed
dykes which could not hold back the flow of toxic mud that began on
May 29 around an oil exploration drilling rig.
Eleven miles of dykes are being built by 1,500 soldiers and
labourers around the clock to contain the growing catastrophe, in
which 11,000 people have lost their homes or been forced to evacuate.
The company, which is facing daily protests from residents, now
accepts its drilling may have caused the world's largest disaster of
A 100 metre-high column of thick white smoke is visible several
miles from Porong district, 22 miles south of Indonesia's second
largest city, Surabaya, in East Java, and the smell of rotten eggs
pervades the hazy tropical air. The mud is up to seven metres deep,
and every few seconds the earth jolts and another dollop of hot
sediment belches out. Occasionally the mud exits more dramatically,
shooting up several metres into the air with a loud "whooosh". The gas
stings people's eyes and it is impossible to breathe without taking in
the fumes, even with a mask.
The drilling company is PT Lapindo Brantas, which is controlled by
the family of Indonesia's powerful senior welfare minister, Aburizal
Bakrie. Its senior vice-president in charge of the clean-up, Imam
Agustino, admits he has no idea when the mudflow will be stopped, let
alone when the affected land will be useable again.
"We don't know if the source of the mud really comes from the well
bore or somewhere else," he told the Guardian. "The best-case scenario
[for stopping the mudflow] is now mid-November, but I have to admit it
might never be stopped."
Porong's "mud volcano" is coming from liquid sediment up to 2,750
metres (9,000ft) deep that was formed 5m years ago, the Jakarta Post
reported. The first two attempts to block the flow - by plugging the
borehole, which extends two miles underground, and pumping concrete
into its bottom - had to be abandoned when the mud continued to rise.
The current plan is to drill into the mud reservoir from three
directions and fill it with concrete. "The problems are that we don't
know how big the reservoir is and there's never been anything like
this on this scale so we don't have any precedent to help us," Mr Imam
Preparations are already under way for the worst-case scenario.
"We want the well to be stopped but if we can't do that we have to be
ready," Indonesia's environment minister, Rachmat Witoelar, told the
Guardian as he inspected a potential site for the water from the mud
to be dumped at sea. "We would siphon off the water, treat it and then
pump it through pipes 16 kilometres [10 miles] to the sea. The mud
will then be treated further before being removed."
Despite Mr Imam claiming it was too early to blame Lapindo, Mr
Witoelar had no doubts. "Lapindo has to pay for its mistake and
restore the environment," he said. Nine people, mainly from Lapindo
and the drilling sub-contractor, are being investigated by police, and
trials could start within weeks. The drilling rig that was being used
when the mud started flowing will be introduced as evidence.
Unless the mudflow is stopped soon, other problems are expected to
exacerbate the crisis. As Lapindo runs out of places to build ponds to
store the mud, the sediment threatens to cover the main railway line
just three metres away. The main motorway to the region on another
side of the sea of mud has already been raised 2.5 metres and is being
raised another two metres. Other villages are in danger of being
submerged and experts estimate that the land has been sinking by up to
three centimetres a month since May.
The rainy season, forecast to start in October, may also worsen
the situation. "Who knows what will happen when it starts raining,"
said Andiko Harmiyul, the deputy leader of the mud management team.
"All I can say is that we will build the dykes as high and big as
For the 11,000 people made homeless, Lapindo is paying rent for
alternative accommodation for two years plus moving costs, 300,000
rupiah (£17.50) a person a month for food, arranging alternative
schooling and negotiating to buy the destroyed houses. Thousands of
people have received free medical treatment. Farmers are receiving
compensation of two years' income in advance and factories are being
But many feel the company is being untransparent, unfair and
"We've all stopped work but we've been given no money to make up
for what we've lost," said Siti Mualimil, a food seller who, along
with 8,000 other people, has been camping for two months in a market
that had been built but not yet used. "The farmers are doing much
better than us."
Car mechanic Dodi Sumartono said: "I reckon I'm earning about 50%
less than I was before the mudflow started. We now go to people to fix
their cars rather than them coming to us but it's not the same."
Mr Imam said the company did not know what to do to help those
affected. "We're an oil and gas company so we're not equipped to
handle them," he said. "That's why we leave it to the local government
who has the skilled people."
But the consequence is that many residents believe Lapindo is
shirking its responsibilities. "Why don't they come and deal with us,"
Ms Siti said. "Are they afraid?"
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