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Der SPIEGEL

10/09/2006 12:00 AM

Java's Mud Volcano

Eruptions Displace Thousands in Indonesia

By Marco Evers

First came the 2004 tsunami. Then Indonesia was afflicted by the Merapi volcano and a major earthquake in Yogyakarta. Now, a heavily populated region of East Java has been consumed by an unstoppable "mud volcano" that may have been caused by a gas- and oil-drilling project.

It is difficult to imagine that farmers in this part of the Sidoarjo district of East Java were planting rice and sugar cane until just a short time ago. Workers in small factories were producing watches, liquor, furniture and shoes, and the area's villages consisted of narrow lanes and small houses made of stone, concrete and wood. Residents grew bananas in their backyards and carefully tended small but lush gardens.

Those residents would still want to be living here if it weren't for the fact that their villages have now acquired the disastrous nickname "Pompeii." Some even call them "Ground Zero."

The oil and gas exploration company Lapindo Brantas also had an operation in the region. It had constructed a drilling rig only 500 meters (1,640 feet) from nearby houses, an arrangement that was completely legal under Indonesian law. Five months ago, Lapindo engineers drove their drills to a depth of almost 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), into what is known as the "Kunjung formation," where they hoped to encounter oil and, more importantly, natural gas. Indeed, oil and gas were exactly what they had already found at 15 other drilling locations in the wider surrounding area.

What happened then may have been a natural phenomenon. Perhaps it was simply the primeval force of nature, against which human beings are powerless, that unfolded in Sidoarjo.

But many say otherwise, speculating that Lapindo's drilling activities were responsible for the ensuing disaster. They claim that it was irresponsible of the company to tear a wound into the geological bowels of the earth at such great depths. As a result, the earth has been incontinent since May 29.

That was the day the first residents began complaining about Lapindo, the day they first witnessed stinking, hot mud shooting from the earth 180 meters (590 feet) from the drilling rig. Lapindo personnel calmly informed the concerned residents that these kinds of events are not unusual in the oil and gas exploration business, and that the geysers would soon subside of their own accord.

But nothing stopped of its own accord. What began as a stinking puddle of mud soon turned into a pond, the pond turned into a lake and the lake turned into a small inland sea. Despite the local residents' efforts to protect themselves and their homes with sandbags, sludge levels continued to rise.

One night the hot mud crept into nearby houses for the first time. Since then, an unparalleled drama has unfolded in East Java, only 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Indonesia's second-largest city Surabaya, and no one has a clue as to how and, more to the point, when the whole thing will end.

Graphic: Bursted bubble
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Graphic: Bursted bubble

Pressure from massive layers of rock is draining a huge, subterranean reservoir of mud, forcing the steaming material to the surface, where it has slowly inundated the surrounding flat countryside. The so-called mud volcano that has formed in the middle of this densely populated area is apparently the world's largest, as well as the first that may have been triggered by human activity.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has declared Sidoarjo a disaster zone. Cabinet ministers are flying in from the Indonesian capital Jakarta, officials are holding crisis meetings and the United Nations has sent in experts. The Indonesian army has dispatched 1,400 troops and heavy equipment to the region.

So far the mud has claimed 20 factories, 15 mosques, a cemetery and 18 schools. It has closed a section of the main road to Bali and is only a few meters away from flooding an important rail line. Authorities have already declared eight villages partly or completely uninhabitable. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated. But this is only the beginning.

So far, refugees have had enough time to take along their most valuable possessions, from television sets and stereos to furniture and important documents. But what they were forced to leave behind is even more telling, as toys, shoes, mattresses and canned goods float on the surface of the dense liquid. The list of victims has not included any human lives, only 1,605 chickens, 30 goats and 2 dairy cows.

Every day, residents and refugees climb one of the hastily erected dikes to survey the damage -- and curse Lapindo. A 50-meter (164-foot) plume of raging water vapor shoots eerily from a spot that until recently was an ordinary rice field. Instead of rice, the field now contains a large crater at least 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter. The geyser bubbles, gurgles and occasionally emits loud bursts, constantly spurting steaming, inky dark mud from the bowels of the earth. The putrid stench is sometimes interspersed with the odor of petroleum. The plume occasionally contains larger amounts of hydrogen sulfide, producing sulfur's telltale odor of rotten eggs.

Classic volcanism is not the cause of this spectacle. There is no molten magma, and no one expects the kind of deadly eruption that transpired when Krakatoa, a volcano off the Javan coast, famously exploded in 1883. Instead of lava and ash, mud volcanoes spew a mixture of gases and mud from high-pressure zones deep beneath the surface.

Geologists know of more than 1,100 mud volcanoes worldwide. Each has its own peculiarities. Some stand only a foot or so tall and are harmless, like the bubbling molehill-sized mud volcanoes on Trinidad. Others are dangerous. Powerful mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan are emitting large amounts of methane gas. Some are on fire and, in some cases, have been burning uninterrupted for centuries. During periods of high activity, a large mud volcano off the coast of Trinidad spits out entire islands. In 1911, 1928, 1964 and 2001, it deposited recognizable landmasses into the ocean, although they eventually became submerged again.

The Sidoarjo event offers researchers a rare opportunity to observe the birth of one of these puzzling formations and to take its pulse with all manner of measuring devices. Bit by bit, the formation is assuming the characteristic shape of a volcano. It has already grown to a height of 14 meters (46 feet), making it taller than any of the surrounding and now submerged trees and buildings. Meanwhile, the land has been sinking at a rate of three centimeters a month since the catastrophe began.

No one knows how large the reservoir is that is feeding the volcano, nor is there any way of finding out. However, the sheer volume of material being ejected each day provides some indication of its potency. Using GPS equipment, experts with gas company Lapindo have been measuring the volcano's flow rate for months, producing data that has researchers the world over in awe and residents and local authorities in a state of shock:

And there is still no indication that the mud volcano has reached its maximum output, nor has it shown any sign of subsiding.

Officials now face the question of what to do with the hot sludge. The furiously spitting hole in the ground has already covered an area almost the size of Bavaria's Königssee Lake, or about two square miles, with a slippery sludge up to 12 meters (39 feet) deep in places. If the Indonesians hadn't dispatched a small army of more than 1,000 men, equipped with bulldozers, graders and trucks, to build new dikes around the clock, many more villages would already have disappeared.

But despite their efforts, the problems become more serious by the hour. At one site, a gray-haired construction engineer directs a small convoy of dump trucks as they bring in earth to construct yet another dike. "What we are doing here," says the engineer, "has never been attempted anywhere else in the world. There are no precedents."

The crisis managers are slowly running out of options. At first, they tried to simply plug the hole in the ground with concrete, but that effort quickly proved to be useless. Then they tried to cart away the mud on trucks, but abandoned the idea when the discharge volume increased. Their next plan was to construct huge catchment basins. However, the basins, covering an area of about 500 hectares (1,234 acres), were soon full. Now they are hurriedly building an extremely strong dike, which the experienced construction engineer describes as the "last line of defense." But it would take a great deal of optimism to believe that this final bulwark won't soon be flooded as well.

To make matters worse, when the rainy season starts in late October the mud from the underworld will be joined by torrents of rain from the skies. The hastily built earthen dikes will soften and the reservoirs will overflow. "I'm worried," says the engineer, "extremely worried." There will be casualties if the dikes break, because tens of thousands of people still live in the area.

When one of the dikes collapsed on Aug. 16, hot, viscous mud oozed onto a rice field. Together with her husband, Mutiin -- a 40-year-old woman who, like many Javanese, doesn't use a last name -- quickly attempted to harvest the rice from her field, even though it wasn't quite ripe yet. "But we had to give up; the mud was too hot," she says. She suffered minor burns on her lower legs.

Despite the danger, Mutiin refuses to abandon her house. Like most of her neighbors, she says she plans to stay put, even though the water from the well now has what she calls a "bitter taste" and irritates the skin when residents shower. Their children are having trouble breathing and the air is constantly filled with the mud's stench. But at least the residents who have elected to stay behind are being supplied with fresh water.

Graphic: Sidoarjo before and after the mud volcano in May 2006 and September 2006
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Graphic: Sidoarjo before and after the mud volcano in May 2006 and September 2006

Because his house is dangerously close to the dike, bird merchant Rahmat Vejaya, 29, fled to an emergency shelter weeks ago, taking his wife, two-year-old daughter and mother with him. "I am very upset," he says. "I lost my work, my home and my peace." Local residents have already vented their fury against the government and against the Lapindo natural gas drilling company in a series of angry demonstrations. To make matters worse, the police have declared that they will shoot at demonstrators who turn to violence.

Meanwhile, workers have begun installing steel pipes to pump water and mud from the many catchment basins. Using excavating equipment, workers are dredging a canal between one of the largest basins and the nearby Porong River, as part of a plan to divert new mud into the river and into the ocean 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. But because the river has very little slope, experts fear that it could quickly silt up and flood its banks. Environmentalists are opposed to the plan because the flood of sediment could endanger mangroves, fish and fishermen.

Drilling engineers from the United States are now undertaking one last, desperate effort to solve the problem. They intend to drill three additional holes in hopes of finding the channel that is allowing the hot mud to escape to the surface. If the plan works, the engineers will pour special concrete into the channel by December in an effort to choke off the volcano. But even Rudi Novrianto, the spokesman of the national team handling the crisis, estimates the project's chances of succeeding at "15 percent or less."

"What they are attempting to do is like stopping the Nile from running towards the ocean," says Norwegian scientist Martin Hovland derisively. "It is completely impossible."

The most likely scenario for the future is that large swathes of Sidoarjo will have to be evacuated and abandoned to the mud. The refugees whose houses have already been destroyed will never return.

Officials are mulling over how to make use of the mud, at least in the medium term. One option is to build factories near the disaster zone that would turn the mud into bricks, roof shingles and ceramics, uses for which the sandy, claylike material seems ideally suited. Indeed, if the mud volcano continues to eject its hot material at the current rate, these businesses could very well have a guaranteed source of their principal raw material for decades to come.

Georg Delisle, a geologist with Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in Hanover, has spent the last few weeks on board a German research ship off the coast of Sumatra. Based on his exchanges with Indonesian scientists, Delisle is pessimistic when it comes to the disaster-stricken region's future. He is troubled by the mud's water content, which, at 30 percent, is still very high.

If it were drier, the mud could eventually plug up the fissure. But that, says Delisle, is unlikely to happen. Instead, he is convinced that the eruption will last for months and the volcano will continue to grow. A mud volcano Delisle studied in Azerbaijan ultimately grew to a towering 230 meters (754 feet).

Who is to blame for the eruption? Are Lapindo's drilling engineers behind the mess? For weeks, the company denied all responsibility, pointing to the fact that, after all, the mud wasn't flowing directly from their drilling hole but from a new fissure 180 meters (590 feet) to the southeast.

Adriano Mazzini of the University of Oslo, having just returned from a trip to Sidoarjo, believes the monster is the result of natural geological processes that have been going on for thousands of years. Lapindo's drilling activities, says Mazzini, may have accelerated the event, but he believes that the eruption was bound to occur one way or another. Another possible trigger, he says, could have been the May 27 earthquake in Yogyakarta, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away, which claimed 6,000 lives. According to Mazzini, no one will ever really know what caused the eruption, something not even courts of law can change.

But Delisle believes that a drilling accident is the most likely culprit. For one thing, he questions whether the Lapindo engineers made sure that the drilling hole was adequately lined with "casing," according to industry parlance, as was required and is standard practice worldwide -- to prevent fluids from seeping in from the sides. "Something went fundamentally wrong here," he says. Geological engineer Achim Kopf of the University of Bremen agrees, saying that everything about the case points to a "classic drilling accident." He doubts whether Lapindo used standard safety equipment, such as a device known in the oil and gas industry as a "blowout preventer."

Whatever the causes, what happened in Sidoarjo is a singular event. Hardly anyone in the drilling industry would have considered such a disaster even remotely possible.

Lapindo only assumed responsibility when the Indonesian police confiscated the company's equipment and launched criminal investigations into nine senior executives. President Yudhoyono has signed a decree declaring the company liable and ordering it to foot the bill for all consequences of the mud volcano's eruption, as well as to pay damages to and resettle the affected businesses and residents. The damage is estimated at upwards of $250 million.

The controversy over compensation is politically explosive. The company blamed for the accident, Lapindo, is part of a conglomerate owned by the wealthy Bakrie family. One of its members, Aburizal Bakrie, is the "People's Welfare Coordinating Minister" in Yudhoyono's cabinet. Bakrie used his family fortune to foot much of the bill for the president's election campaign. Now Indonesians are eager to see whether Yudhoyono will in fact order his benefactor to help pay for the disaster.

In addition to subsidies for food and tuition, the refugees displaced by the mud have received the equivalent of about €450 in compensation for each household. At first, they were even required to sign a statement relinquishing their right to sue the company. The money is intended to cover their housing costs for two years, at which point the government will have to find a more permanent solution. There is talk that Lapindo is buying the residents' former houses or offering them the use of new ones. The drilling company also plans to find new jobs for anyone who became unemployed as a result of the disaster.

Haji Hasan, the chairman of one of the lost villages, has turned to a thoroughly unscientific approach to saving the region. He has offered a reward of 100 million rupiahs, or about €8,400 ($10,840), for anyone who can convince the spirits to make the mud stop flowing.

More than 100 magicians, shamans and witches have responded to his appeal, much to the chagrin of local imams. For weeks the collection of sorcerers cast their spells on the volcano. One was an elderly woman who presented herself to the mud as the "Queen of Bali" and ordered it to stop flowing immediately.

Haji Hasan's experts, as it turned out, were just as successful as the hordes of engineers and scientists who had traveled to the region -- in other words, not at all.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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