Tue, Dec 23, 2008 - Page 9 News List

A corner of Indonesia is sinking in a sea of mud

Experts say drilling and inadequate safeguards in a borehole set off an eruption of water, gas and mud that spews out about 100,000m³ every day

By Seth mydans  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , RENOKENONGO, INDONESIA

Her children insist, so every week or two Lilik Kamina takes them back to their abandoned village to look at the mud.

“Hey, Mom, there’s our house, there’s the mango tree,” she said they shout.

But there is nothing to see, only an ocean of mud that has buried this village and a dozen more over the past two-and-a-half years.

The mud erupted here during an exploratory drilling for natural gas and it has grown to be one of the largest mud volcanoes ever to have affected a populated area. Unlike other disasters that torment Indonesia — earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis — this one continues with no end in sight, and experts say the flow of mud could go on for many years or decades.

The steaming mud keeps bubbling up, spreading across the countryside, driving people from their homes, burying fields and factories. It has forced the relocation of roads, bridges, a railway line and a major gas pipeline.

As the earth disgorges the mud and the lake of mud grows, the land is sinking by as much as 40 feet a year and could subside to depths of more than 140m just one hour’s drive from Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, according to Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University in Britain who is an expert on mud volcanoes.

Siti Maimunah, an environmental advocate, said people who lived nearby had begun getting sick, with about 46,000 visiting clinics with respiratory problems since the mud eruption.

Siti, who is national coordinator for the Mining Advocacy Network of Indonesia, said the gas that emerged with the mud was toxic and possibly carcinogenic.

“We worry that in the next five to 10 years people will face a second disaster with health problems,” she said.

Attempts to stem the flow have failed.

These have included a scheme to drop hundreds of giant concrete balls into the mouth of the eruption; the concrete balls simply disappeared without effect. A project to divert some of the mud into the nearby Porong River has raised fears that the buildup of silt on the riverbed could cause severe flooding, possibly in Surabaya itself.

The disaster has become an embarrassment to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who faces a new election next year, with groups of displaced people demonstrating in the distant capital, Jakarta.

The drilling company that critics say caused the disaster, Lapindo Brantas, is indirectly owned by the family of one of Indonesia’s richest and most influential men, Aburizal Bakrie, who is a major financial backer of Yudhoyono and serves in his Cabinet as coordinating minister for the people’s welfare.

The victims say compensation has been slow, with only a portion of promised funds delivered to them. Sixty-thousand people have fled their homes and many, like Lilik, now live in nearby shelters and in a marketplace.

This is a particularly forlorn class of displaced people who mostly fend for themselves because, as victims of what is being called a man-made disaster, they receive little assistance from the government or from international aid agencies.

“So we live without hope,” said Ali Mursjid, 25, who was in college studying to be a teacher before the mud volcano made him destitute. “Nobody is willing to help us.”

His village, Besuki, was only partly buried in mud, and it is now a ghost town of empty houses and hard, cracked mud where children fly kites and shout to hear their voices echo.

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