Toxic mud engulfs villages

Four villages and 19 factories have been submerged in a 240ha 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 that could not hold back the flow of toxic mud that began on May 29 around an oil exploration drilling rig.

Eighteen kilometres of dykes are being built around the clock by 1 500 soldiers and labourers 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 its kind.

A 100m-high column of thick white smoke is visible several kilometres from Porong district in East Java, and the smell of rotten eggs pervades the hazy tropical air. The mud is up to 7m 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 even with a mask without taking in the fumes.

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 usable 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 750m deep that was formed five million years ago, the Jakarta Post reported. The first two attempts to block the flow—by plugging the borehole, which is about 3km deep, 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 problem is 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,’’ Imam said.

Preparations are 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, said 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 16km to the sea. The mud will then be treated further before being removed.’‘

Despite Imam claiming it was too early to blame Lapindo, 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 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 2,5m and is being raised another 2m. Other villages are in danger of being submerged and experts estimate that the land has been sinking by up to 3cm a month since May. The rainy season, forecast to start in October, may also worsen the situation.

Lapindo is paying rent for alternative accommodation for two years for the 11 000 people made homeless. It is also paying moving costs and $33 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 relocated.

But many feel the company is being untransparent, unfair and uncaring. “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.

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,’’ Siti said. “Are they afraid?’’—Â

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