Thursday, September 28, 2006
Mud volcano still affecting Indonesia
Four months ago, a torrent of hot mud from deep beneath the surface of Indonesia's seismically charged Java island began surging from a natural gas exploration site following a drilling accident.
The “mud volcano” pours out some 165,000 cubic yards of mud every day – enough to cover a football field about 75 feet deep. Often spewing out in geyser-like eruptions, the mud has left some 665 acres swamped or abandoned as unsafe, forcing more than 10,000 people from their homes.
Experts say the mud volcano is one of the largest ever recorded on land. Geologists fear the technology may not exist to stop the eruption, saying mud could flow for years or even centuries – or stop on its own at any time.
The mud is believed to come from a reservoir 3½ miles below the surface that has been pressurized by shifts in the crust or by the accumulation of hydrocarbon gases.
The calamity has underscored the patchy safety record of mining companies exploiting the natural resources of this Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of islands.
Police seized the drilling rig involved in the accident and are investigating whether to bring criminal charges against the principal well owner, PT Lapindo Brantas.
Lapindo, which is linked to the wealthy family of Indonesia's welfare minister, is paying for an ever expanding network of earthen dams to contain the mud, but many people fear the resulting slimy ponds will overflow during the approaching rainy season.
“The volume of mud that is coming out of the hole is not just large, it's enormous,” Earl Hunt Jr., an engineer from Woodward, Okla., said while supervising dredging operations.
“We are running out of room up here, period,” he said. “If they don't pump it to sea or something soon, then there will be more villages lost.”
The government recently gave permission to dump the mud into the sea via a local river. But experts question whether that will get rid of the sludge faster than it gushes from the hole, and environmentalists are opposing the plan as a threat to the marine ecosystem.
The mud, which stands as deep as 16 feet in places, has submerged or washed into houses in four villages. At least 20 factories and many acres of rice fields and prawn farms have been destroyed.
The sludge has repeatedly washed over a major road, closing it for weeks at a time, and now it is threatening a rail line in the industrial area just outside Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city.
The mud, which is not toxic, first appeared several days after a blowout deep in Lapindo's well shaft May 29.
Police claim the company mishandled the accident by failing to cap the hole properly, allowing the mud to surge to the surface from several cracks close to the well.
Independent analysts also have said the company's activities were a factor in the torrent.
“This is a natural disaster induced by drilling activity,” said Andang Bactiar, a consultant for the oil and gas industry who is working with authorities investigating the case. “Somehow, or somewhere, several mistakes occurred that caused the mud to come from the hole.”
The company declined to give its version of what happened or the steps it took to stem the mud, citing possible legal liability. But spokeswoman Yuniwati Teryana said drilling activity had not been proven to be linked to the eruption.
The well is 50 percent owned by Lapindo. Another Indonesian firm, PT Medco E&P Brantas, has a 32 percent stake and Santos Ltd. of Australia holds the remaining 18 percent.
Lapindo has made emergency payments to those who have lost homes and promises to compensate their losses.
But in a country where mistrust of government runs high after decades of dictatorship that ended only in 1998, many people fear the company will try to dodge its responsibilities. The involvement of Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie's family in Lapindo has only added to worries.
“We are just poor people, our rights will be torn up as usual,” one resident, Sukararji, said as he stood on a dam gazing at mud that reaches the second-floor windows of his house. “We are being stepped on like ants.”
After two unsuccessful attempts to stop the flow, Lapindo is digging three shafts alongside the hole, hoping to kill the eruption by pumping in concrete.
Experts are skeptical that will work.
“If they manage to stop it, it will be the first time in the world that it has been done,” said geologist Arif Munsyawar.