Accessibility links

Breaking News

Indonesia Fights Mud Torrent

Indonesia is struggling to hold back a torrent of hot mud that has buried entire villages and displaced more than 12,000 people since it began spewing from under the ground more than 10 months ago. Chad Bouchard recently visited Porong in East Java and reports that the future of the area and its people remain uncertain.

Since May 2006, tons of hot muck have poured out of the ground. As it slowly gains force, it now releases enough to fill 40 Olympic-size swimming pools every day.

And it shows no signs of slowing. The sludge has seeped into an area about three kilometers square, burying 12 villages and driving 12,000 people from their homes.

A giant plume of steam rises from the bubbling lake of mud, and a black geyser shoots 10 meters high. Like a giant percolator, it sputters boiling waves up from a 30-meter wide shaft.

Basuki Hadimulyono is the head of the government task force trying to manage the flow. He says the rising mud, already 16 meters deep, threatens to breach emergency dikes.

"If we stop to move this mud even in one night, it will raise up, it will spill out everywhere," he says. "We have to do it continuously; we cannot leave it even an hour."

Efforts to contain the mud create only temporary solutions. A plan to divert the flow into the sea through a nearby river has failed because the muck is too thick. The government has even dropped about 1,500 concrete balls into the opening of the ground, without significant result.

Geologists believe the mud is boiling up from a large underground reservoir of water, which mixes with silt from an ancient seabed on its way to the surface.

Geologist Richard Davies from Durham University in the U.K. says the landscape is slowly sagging under the weight of the mud.

"I think the major risk now is simply the collapse of the area that will take place over the coming months and years," he said.

An oil and gas company, Lapindo Brantas, had been drilling a deep exploration shaft 200 meters away when the mud erupted last year. Many blame the company for the disaster. Some scientists blame it on an earthquake in Yogyakarta, about 280 kilometers away, two days before the flow began.

The question of responsibility is key to how thousands of displaced people are compensated for the mudflow, which already has caused an estimated $823 million in damage.

The country's welfare minister, Aburizal Bakrie, is from the wealthy family that owns a controlling share of Lapindo. He blames the mud on natural causes.

"According to the experts, it is a truly natural disaster," he said. "Can you imagine that about one million barrels a day from one hole, and that hole is not the hole that is drilled by Lapindo?"

Richard Davies has published a report, however, that indicates the mining company may have caused the disaster.

"What we think happened is that the well drilled into over-pressured aquifer," he said. "Unfortunately when they drilled into that rock the well bore, 1.7 kilometers of the well bore, was not protected by steel casing."

Lapindo executives and subcontractors are under criminal investigation. Lapindo has paid some money to displaced people but insists this is not an admission of guilt.

"Actually what we have done so far is because of our conscience about society," said Yunawati Teryana, a company spokeswoman. "So the assistance that we have provided is just in terms of - just assistance, not because of responsibility."

Until the flow stops, and compensation paid, eight thousand people's lives are on hold in a makeshift camp a few kilometers from their buried villages. They sleep in the stalls of a former market. The poorly ventilated sheds, only a few square meters in size, shelter up to 15 people, with few facilities.

The government has proposed moving the displaced families into a new housing development rather than giving compensation directly to victims.

One of the displaced villagers, Pujiono, an engineer, explains this has become a flashpoint for protesters, who demand "cash and carry" instead of forced resettlement. He says he wants the right to make the choice of wherever he moves next with his pregnant wife and two children.

Siti Rachmawati, displaced by the mud, says her plans depend on the compensation Lapindo has promised. She says she does not know where to go in the future even if her family gets some money. Her hope is that with some money, she could open a small business, just to survive.

With no one taking direct responsibility, the future of thousands of people in this community is desperate, and steeped in uncertainty.