INDONESIA’S MUD VOLCANO

INDONESIA’S MUD VOLCANO

Jawa Timur in East Java is the home of the the notorious Lusi mud volcano, which killed 13 people and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands of residents in 2006 and is still oozing mud. Data indicates the disaster is man-made: caused by drilling by the gas-exploration company Brantas Lapindo and not caused by an earthquake as Lapindo had claimed. The Indonesian government has said that it expects Lapindo to adequately reimburse all victims (the government itself had allocated more than US$210 million for the purpose in 2008 and 2009), but the case has been increasingly embroiled in legal and political controversy. Lusi—a nickname derived by combining the Indonesian word for mud (lumpur) with Sidoarjo, the name of the nearby town

The seemingly endless torrent of hot, black sludge started oozing from a gaping hole near the country's second-largest city of Surabaya on May 29, 2006. At its peak Lusi spewed up to 180,000 cubic meters of mud per day. As of 2010, the Lusi mud volcano was spewing out about 100,000 tons of mud a day and was showing no signs of letting up. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Known as the Lusi mud volcano, its spread is so relentless — burping noxious gas, swallowing communities, killing 14 people and forcing the evacuations of 60,000 — that some say it could star in its own sci-fi thriller.” Out of “a series of fissures, marked by an ominous smoke plume, pump out 100,000 tons of mud. New chemical fires erupt from smaller, gas-seeping cracks in a vision from hell that has closed roads and demolished buildings. Since the flow erupted, 170 new gas bubbles have broken through the surface, spewing unsafe levels of methane. The fissures, where temperatures can reach 140 degrees, have led officials to warn against even lighting matches in the area. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2010 |>|]

The damage for the mud volcano was estimated to be in the billions of dollars. As of 2008 it had covered 10,426 houses, 35 schools, 65 mosques and one orphanage. A bridge that developed cracks was dismantled and railway tracks were moved out of line. At that time the advancing mud was largely contained behind human-engineered dykes. In November 2006, 13 people were killed in a gas blast caused by the rupturing of an underground pipe.

Glionna wrote: “The mudflow is slowly gobbling up the countryside. Now covering 2,000 acres, it's 65 feet deep in some places, submerging factories, schools, farms and a dozen villages. Indonesian officials have insisted that the deadly flow was the result of a natural disaster: an earthquake that struck 175 miles away just before the mud began its onslaught in 2006. But evidence from a team of independent U.S. and British geologists suggests that the mud volcano, like the British Petroleum oil disaster, was man-made, the result of a 2006 drilling accident at a nearby gas exploration site. And these geologists say they have no idea when the mudflow will stop, if ever. The accident, many here charge, is just the latest example of corruption and incompetence in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation's attempt to exploit its energy resources.” |>|

In late 2013, international scientists who had been monitoring the situation were reported as saying that the eruption of mud at Sidoardjo had was falling away quite rapidly and that the indications were that the eruption might cease by perhaps 2017, much earlier than previously estimated. The scientists noted that the system was losing pressure quite rapidly and had begun pulsing rather than maintaining a steady flow. The pulsing pattern, it was believed, was a clear sign that the geological forces driving the eruption were subsiding. [Source: Wikipedia]

Gas Company behind the Mud Volcano

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: PT Lapindo Brantas, a company that owns a controlling stake in the project, is controlled by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, one of Indonesia's wealthiest men, who at the time of the rupture was the government's minister for people's welfare. The company has denied any connection to the mudflow, but it also has agreed to pay $400 million to compensate 10,000 families, as ordered by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Many of those people say they have received only one-fifth of their settlement. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2010 |>|]

Andrew Marshall wrote in National Geographic: “A spokesperson for Lapindo explains compensation is delayed because claimants cannot provide adequate proof of home or land ownership, and maintains the company has already spent millions to house and feed victims. Claims will be fully paid within two years, she promises, adding that Lapindo has no legal obligation because the disaster's cause remains unproven. "We don't know yet whether this is our fault," she says. [Source: Andrew Marshall, National Geographic, January 2008]

“The politics surrounding the disaster are as muddy as the landscape. Bakrie, a billionaire, says the well had nothing to do with the catastrophe; he blames it on a powerful earthquake that struck Yogyakarta, 170 miles (270 kilometers) away, two days before the mud flood. He has yet to visit Lusi's victims. Just as well. Anger pervades a market where thousands of displaced villagers encamp. "If Bakrie comes here," one man says, slowly drawing his finger across his throat. Still, Bakrie enjoys the backing of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who and apparently opts not to alienate a fat-cat cabinet member by demanding his resignation.” [Ibid]

In 2009, According to the Los Angeles Times, “regional authorities halted their investigation of the mudflow, citing a lack of evidence to link Lapindo Brantas to the volcano's eruption. The Indonesian Supreme Court has also upheld a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit by environmentalists blaming the company for the disaster. Meanwhile, Bakrie, 63, who many believe has aspirations to become president, has been chosen to lead a new joint secretariat likely to play an important role in determining government policy, including its focus on energy. But citing the new U.S. and British geologic evidence, activists have called for the inquiry to be reopened. "It's a national scandal," said Bambang Catur Nusantara, a regional director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment. "The company is getting away with murder. And the government is doing nothing." |>|

Evidence That the Gas Company behind the Mud Volcano

Well operator Lapindo Brantas says the mud volcano was triggered by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that occurred 155 miles from the site two days earlier. Andrew Marshall wrote in National Geographic: “One study by an international team that included a Lapindo employee supported Bakrie's claim that the earthquake caused the mess. But Richard Davies of Durham University in England is dismissive. "One, the earthquake wasn't big enough and was too far away," he says. "Two, we have pretty good evidence for how drilling would have caused this incident." Davies' own studies concluded the eruption was triggered by the drilling and the attempt to control a huge influx of water and gas that fractured sections of the borehole. [Source: Andrew Marshall, National Geographic, January 2008]

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In a paper published in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology, U.S. and British researchers said their findings — funded by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation — suggest that the disaster was caused when operators pulled the drill while the natural gas well was unstable. Co-author Michael Manga, a geology professor at UC Berkeley, said the pressure in the 2-mile-deep well created cracks in the earth that allowed seeping gas to push the mud to the surface. He said the mudflow can't be capped like the BP oil spill because the mud comes from a series of hard-to-contain fissures that also vent gas. "In 30 years, there have been many much larger and closer earthquakes, and none of them caused any mud eruptions," he said. "This quake was much too small and far away." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2010 |>|]

“Company officials dispute that hypothesis. "We find that [the] claims are merely speculative and not based on any credible data," said Nurrochmat Sawolo, senior drilling adviser at Energi Mega Persada. The firm, owned by the Bakrie group, indirectly controls Lapindo Brantas. "Our study is based on the most definitive dataset from the drilling rig," he said. "This is a source of information that is completely automated, an unbiased set of recorded drilling parameters." Manga stands by his results. "My level of confidence is so strong that if I'm wrong, I should be fired," he said. "Our science is as good as it can be." Manga doesn't know when the mudflow will stop. "It can keep erupting, pretty much forever." |>|

Sara Schonhardt of Associated Press wrote: “Scientists said they are almost certain the mud volcano was caused by faulty drilling of a gas exploration well. "We are more certain than ever that the Lusi mud volcano is an unnatural disaster and was triggered by drilling the Banjar-Panji-1 well," Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University in Britain, said. He was the lead author of a study published this week in the academic journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that said his team was 99 percent sure that drilling pressures caused a fluid leakage that led to an "underground blowout." Lapindo noticed too late that an influx of water or gas entered the well after the drill was removed for the night, Davies said, adding "it is quite clear" the critical pressure was "more than the hole could withstand." [Source: Sara Schonhardt, Associated Press, June 10, 2008]

Victims of Indonesia's Mud Volcano

Andrew Marshall wrote in National Geographic: “By dawn, the trickle that began to seep into the neighborhood during the night had become a scalding torrent. Mud surged into the modest house belonging to Sumitro, who manages a store in the Porong District of East Java. As it smothered furniture and filled rooms, Sumitro and Indayani, his wife, grabbed the kids and fled. "I knew the mud couldn't be stopped," he says. "My house was doomed." A dike protected Sumitro's neighborhood until November 2006, when the mud caused a gas pipeline to explode, killing 13 people. "I thought the end of the world had come," he recalls. In a way, it had. The explosion weakened the dike, exposing his neighborhood to the flow. Now, footprints of fleeing residents are baked into the mud of empty streets. Scavengers have stripped homes of roof tiles and wiring. The stink of sulfur hangs in the air. "Nothing left now," Sumitro says. "Only memories." [Source: Andrew Marshall, National Geographic, January 2008]

Reporting from Sidoarjo, the site of the mud volcano, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Indonesia — For four long years, Reni Sualeha has lived in the shadow of a monster, a menacing chemical flow of fetid gray mud that belches unchecked from the bowels of the earth near her home. Each day, she watches as mud and chemical fires demolish buildings, including one just down the road from Sualeha's tiny home. "It's not from this planet," she said of the volcano. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2010 |>|]

“Wahyu Mulyanto and her family were driven from their home in 2006. "It was just so surreal to see our house swallowed by mud," she said. "It's hard to describe: From a small hole comes this mud that gradually swallows everything in its path: my house, my job, my life." |>|

On a towering earthen wall built to contain the flow, a new economy capitalizes on the disaster. Hawkers peddle explanatory DVDs, sell snacks and offer tours to tourists who arrive by the busload. "This thing is world-famous," said hawker Muhammad Jafar, who lost his job when his factory was swallowed by the mud. "People want to come and see for themselves the power of nature."

“Some survivors have made the best of their plight. Sualeha showed off a makeshift stove in her yard that captures the oozing gas to heat water. "Look, the flame is blue," she said, flinching as she lighted the stove. She pointed to cracks in her home she believes were caused by the underground pressure. "Sometimes at night," she said, "when I smell the gas and think of what might happen, I shudder." Sualeha is no longer waiting for the government to save her. "I'm just a poor villager, but I can still read between the lines," she said. "The government is protecting a company run by one of its own.... What can you do?"

Cleaning Up and Containing Indonesia’s Mud Volcano

The government has made many attempts to contain or stop the mud, including dropping beach ball-sized concrete balls into its mouth and building dams to channel the sludge to sea. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The government has been shouldering the cost of mitigating the flow, erecting an earthen dike to contain the main mud stream, building huge pumps near the source to divert newly rising sludge away from villages. Activists estimate that the total cost of cleanup and settlement payments will run into the billions of dollars. If they can obtain a legal ruling establishing Lapindo Brantas as responsible, they say, the company could be forced to pay more, if not all, of the damages. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2010]

Andrew Marshall wrote in National Geographic: “Trucks and backhoes work relentlessly to contain the damage, fortifying dikes against the 600,000 barrels of mud that continue to surge out each day. Pipes disgorge the sludge into the Porong River; theoretically, rain will wash it to sea—if it doesn't choke the river and flood nearby Surabaya, a city of 2.5 million. With the mud came the mystics—Sumatran witch doctors, Balinese Hindu priests, and a celebrity soothsayer, Mama Lauren—claiming they could stop the deluge. Believers tossed goats, geese, and monkeys into the mud to appease the dragon supposedly disturbed by drilling. A wealthy local offered a house to anyone who could halt the mud. First, however, applicants had to prove their powers could stop a tap from dripping. It didn't happen. Wary of mystics, weary of mud, Sumitro is short on optimism. "Nothing can stop it," he says. "Not technology, not the supernatural." [Source: Andrew Marshall, National Geographic, January 2008]

A dike protected one neighborhood until November 2006, when the mud caused a gas pipeline to explode, killing 13 people. An attempt to plug the hole with thousands of concrete balls failed last year. Now Soenarso, chief of the Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency, is out of ideas for halting the flow. "I can only say it is in the hands of God Almighty," he told the Jakarta Post.

Concrete Balls and the Mud Volcano 'On Brink of Collapse'?

In May 2008, James Randerson wrote in The Guardian, “The world's largest mud volcano is beginning to show signs of "catastrophic collapse", according to geologists who have been monitoring it and the surrounding area. Scientists say that the land near the central vent could sag by up to 146 metres in the next decade. In March, the scientists observed drops of up to 3 metres in one night. Most of the subsidence in the area around the volcano is more gradual, at around 0.1cm per day. "It is starting to show signs that the central part is undergoing a more catastrophic collapse," said Prof Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University. "The fact that the whole area is collapsing means there are probably new faults forming. These faults are new pathways for fluids to seep up to the surface. We've never really seen a mud volcano develop so quickly." [Source: James Randerson, theguardian.com, May 29, 2008 \*/]

“The team have monitored the subsidence using fixed GPS stations which are able to record very accurate ground movements by communicating with satellites. They reported their results in the journal Environmental Geology. The central collapse may be good news because it will make room for more mud at the surface and so take the pressure off the dykes. But subsidence around the submerged zone will have more impact on the local community.\*/

“In 2007, Indonesian authorities began a desperate plan to drop 2000 concrete balls into Lusi's central vent in an effort to stem the flow. Davies watched the operation, which went on for 2 months. "What happened was they dropped them and never saw them again," he said. "It just gobbled them up." \*/

As the operation began, Ian MacKinnon wrote in The Guardian, “Scientists began dropping huge concrete balls chained together into the mouth of a mud volcano in a desperate attempt to staunch the relentless flow. The operation to lower 2,000 of the enormous balls, chained together in groups, into the mouth of the rupture has been postponed several times already. British experts who have closely monitored the mud volcano are sceptical about whether the effort will halt the outpouring of noxious gas, mud and boiling water that has been spewing at a rate of 1 million barrels every day for nine months. They fear the pressurised underground reservoir responsible for the sludge will find other fissures to the surface in possibly more dangerous or difficult areas. [Source: Ian MacKinnon, theguardian.com, February 22, 2007 |^|]

“The operation to lower the sets of concrete balls, each weighing up 400kg, into the rupture will begin slowly. It is hoped that the ball and chain set will be dropped to a depth of 100 metres with the aim of slowing the flow by up to 70 percent rather than halting it completely. However, Lapindo Brantas initially tried to staunch the flow by pumping mud and concrete into the mouth of the volcano. Eventually, the pressure of the mud burst from fissures around the plug. The hope is that the chained balls will move together and be more likely to lodge in a place where the friction will reduce the mud flow, which has already covered an area of 10 square kilometers to a depth of 10 metres. |^|

“However, Dr Richard Swarbrick, of the Durham-based consultancy GeoPressure Technology, does not believe the strategy will solve the problem of the flow, which could eventually cause the earth's crust to buckle under the weight. "I have no doubt that if the balls remain at a reasonable level they will slow the flow," he said. "The difficulty is that it will not solve the overall problem. "The risk is that if you check the event you will force the water and mud to come out somewhere else, and that could be a great deal more dangerous than managing it where it is now." |^|

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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