In a country where earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis are constant threats, the last thing it needed was a mud bath.
It is getting one anyway.
It began in the Indonesian city of Sidoarjo last May, when mud began flowing after an accident at a gas exploration site.
And kept flowing … and flowing … and continues to flow.
According to a World Health Organization report, since the explosion 10 people have died, 13 have been injured and three were reported missing. Most of the dead are police and soldiers who were securing the site.
The latest damage estimates indicate the mud flood has engulfed 1,810 houses as well as 18 schools, two government offices, 20 factories and 15 mosques. Recently the flow reached 126,000 cubic meters a day, or about 1.7 million cubic feet.
As of mid-January, an estimated 3,000 families, or about 10,000 people, had been displaced.
(If matters were not bad enough, late last November a gas pipe buried under the relief well exploded, spilling an additional two to three meters of mud onto a toll road.)
The main source of mud, though, originated and is coming from a reservoir more than 3 1/2 miles underground that is being fueled by tectonic activity and/or by the accumulation of hydrocarbon gases. To date, the mud has covered some 210 hectares of land in Sidoarjo and is threatening main thoroughfares and railway lines between Surabaya to Jakarta (Indonesia’s two largest cities).
At first, who was to blame for the catastrophe wasn’t as important as what to do about it.
Over the past few months that might have changed.
Digging a Hole
The company at the center of the storm, PT Lapindo Brantas, which operated the well and is linked to the country’s welfare minister, billionaire Aburizal Bakrie, at first refused to take responsibility but recently was ordered to pay the equivalent of $420 million to victims and for efforts to stop the toxic flow.
In one of the stranger twists to the story, Brantas recently employed a unique publicity campaign: it’s funding a soap opera called “Digging a Hole, Filling a Hole.” Set amidst the misery of the mud slide, “Digging …” is a love story that reportedly shows the virtues of patience – something in short supply these days.
Exactly how and what happened is still being discussed, but the general consensus is that the accident occurred when Brantas drilled thousands of feet to tap natural gas without installing casings around the wells to protect seepage.
Company officials initially maintained the mud slide was caused by the seismic activity in the area – a claim not wholly dismissed by geologists – and not because of malfeasance or incompetence. (An earthquake struck Yogyakarta on May 27, the day before the well erupted.)
Even so, local police in Surabaya filed criminal charges against Brantas, alleging its drilling activities caused the torrent and that its response was inadequate.
Whatever the case, on that first day, residents began seeing mud shooting from the earth 180 meters from the drilling rig.
According to news reports, Brantas officials assured local citizens it was nothing to worry about.
An environmentalist told the New York Times that the problems began when the company’s drilling reached 9,000 feet, but actually started at 6,000 feet when the wells started leaking. At that time, the company inserted plugs into the well hole. The pressured mud then sought other escapes, eventually breaking through the earth, which then caused the bath that now affects the region.
The puddle became a pond, which became a lake, which became a river. By continuing to drill, critics say, Brantas exacerbated the situation.
According to a report in Der Spiegel, in June, the volcano spit out an average of 5,000 cubic meters of mud per day. In September, that figure had increased to 125,000 cubic meters.
No Easy Answers
Many believe had the proper casings been in place, the mud would not have entered the well and would not have then had to find other avenues to the surface.
David Howell, with the U.S. Geological Survey and chairman of the Circum- Pacific Council, isn’t completely sold on that theory, even though he admits that man may have had a hand in this disaster.
“Nothing is ever simple and most things have a complex web of causes,” he said. “How different is it from a large-scale flooding event involving a muddy river? In any case it’s not a pretty picture.”
Geologist Adriano Mazzini of the University of Oslo, after returning from the site, goes even further, remarking that the slide is the result of natural geological processes that has been going on for thousands of years.
Mazzini believes Brantas officials may have accelerated the event, but the eruption was bound to happen. Presently, there are more than 1,000 mud volcanoes worldwide, from molehill sized formations found in places like Trinidad to powerful ones in places like Azerbaijan that emit methane gas. Some, in fact, are – and have been – on fire for years.
What made the situation in Indonesia so threatening was the speed and relentlessness of the slide.
It has already taken the shape of a volcano and has grown to a height of 14 meters (46 feet), making it taller than any of the surrounding structures and has now submerged trees and buildings. While the mud deposit has been increasing, the land has been sinking at a rate of three centimeters a month since the catastrophe began.
And there is still no indication that the mud volcano has reached its maximum output, nor has it shown any sign of subsiding.
To help stem the flood, Brantas has constructed a network of earthen dams to contain the mud, but most believe these dams will overflow during the upcoming rainy season, putting the area right back in the same mess.
Against the advice of environmentalists, Indonesian officials are planning to pump the mud into the sea, even though most believe that action will suffocate most marine life.
At first, the Indonesian minister for the environment, Rachmat Witoelar, said, “I reject and will not allow the mud to be dumped into the sea,” adding that the chemicals in the mud would pollute the marine environment – but last month he changed his position and now welcomes the dumping, adding that the mud would not be toxic to birds or fish.
It apparently is inhospitable to humans.
After the country’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said the area “was no longer fit for human habitation,” the government agreed to resettle 3,000 families whose houses have been swamped by mud.
To assess how bad the situation is, an Indonesian official, whose own second floor office was flooded with mud, was reported to have said, “People panicked as if a tsunami was coming.”
For the moment, nobody knows how long the mud will continue to flow, how bad it will be or how to stop it.
Efforts have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. One such idea, offered by the government, was to pour concrete into a channel around the city, thus choking it off.
“What they are attempting to do,” said Norwegian scientist Martin Hovland, “is like stopping the Nile from running toward the ocean. It is completely impossible.”
While government officials and geologists were discussing the merits of dumping, damming and drying up the mud, a local community leader called on more than 100 magicians, shamans and witches to cast their spells on the manmade volcano. One was an elderly woman who presented herself to the mud as the “Queen of Bali” and ordered it to stop flowing immediately.
The Queen, too, was unsuccessful.