For almost one year toxic mud has been spurting from a gas drilling well swamping East Java in unprecedented corporate disaster.
15,000 people have been forced from their homes.
The Indonesian company responsible Lapindo has failed to provide satisfactory compensation to the mounting number of victims and so far nothing has managed to contain or stop the flow the mud.
Environmentalists are described it as one of the world’s largest man-made ecological disasters.
The crisis has also revealed the close political ties that exist between big business and Indonesia’s senior political leaders.
Sutami and Peter Koppen took a closer look at the site.
A thick sulfur smell fills the air, the heat is almost unbearable.
Thick layers of grayish mud have pouring out the ground here at a rate of 3.5 million cubic feet a day for the last 11 months.
The mud has so far covered fifteen villages, miles of rice paddies and forced more than 15,000 people from their homes.
“We had to leave our house and our belongings and evacuate. If we didn’t leave we would now be buried under the mud.”
All 60 year old Juari can now see is the tip of his roof in a sea of mud.
The area is as dead as the moon – there no trees and no sign of life.
Sugianto has not only lost his house, but also his livelihood.
“Before the mud volcano exploded, I had a small bicycle workshop just near my house. Well, now it’s gone. And it’s really difficult to get another job. I’m still looking for work, I’m still unemployed.”
Today both of them are at a meeting in Surabaya to discuss compensation with the company responsible for this disaster: The Lapindo Gas and Oil Exploration Company.
About 200 victims are here anxious to learn what Lapindo is willing to offer for those who have lost everything.
The reactions are blunt.
“The money offered just isn’t enough. The renting prices are rising because many people have to look for a house to rent now after the disaster. The average yearly price now is about 5 million. But they are only offering us 5 million for 2 years. So everybody can see that the money offered is only enough for one year.”
A team of mud volcano researchers from British universities concluded in January that the eruption probably started when a gas exploration drill punched through a layer of rock 9,000 feet below the surface, allowing the pressurised steam, mud and water to escape to the surface.
The debate over whether it was due to technically error by the company is being hotly debated.
Vincent Santoso from Wahli, the Indonesian Forum for Environment, wants to know why a license to drill in such a highly populate area was granted in the first place.
“The mud pouring caused by the exploration process was done by the corporation without obeying the rules. We know that the regional city planning for 2005-2020 doesn’t mention anything about the mining zone in Porong. It only lists Porong zone as a living and farming zone. We know that the city planning issued a master plan to developing the city in the next 15 years. A mining zone is not mentioned in this plan.”
While Lapindo has taken SOME small steps to compensate and pay for the costs related to stopping the mud flow, the company still denies its drilling activities caused the disaster.
Lapindo Brantas is run by a brother of Indonesia’s minister of welfare, Aburizal Bakrie, who financed the president’s election campaign.
Bakrie claims that nothing could have prevented the disaster and says the Java earthquake in May was the cause.
In order to stop the spreading of the mud dams and dykes have been built.
The government is also trying to treat the mud so that it can be pumped in to the sea.
Bakrie is convinced the mud is not toxic– much to the dismay of Vincent Santoso, the environmentalist from Wahli.
“If the mud is pumped into the sea, more than 30 thousand people living at the coast will be affected. As we know, the mud is dangerous. Many experts have said that. So that’s why the mud pouring zone is declared as a dangerous zone. People had to be relocated from that area. It’s simple logic. When the mud is pumped into the sea, it’ll disturb the balance of the nature and have an impact on the fishermen who live along the East Java coast line.”
Some citizens already fear the end of Shrimp City, as Surabaya has been nicknamed in the past years because of its rich shrimp and fishponds.
33% of national shrimp exports come from East Java, designated for the markets of Japan, the European Union and the United States.
To add insult to injury, the sludge repeatedly causes heavy traffic jams on the toll road of Surabaya.
A key railway has been swamped by the mud and will have to be rerouted away from the danger zone.
“With the sea of stinking grey mud advancing every day, more people are becoming homeless and jobless. Their only refuge: a market that has been turned into a makeshift camp.”
Supriyadi and his family of five are living in one of the booths, no more than 12 metres squared.
One of the kids is lying on the concrete floor, shivering with fever. There isn’t much space and privacy, Supriyadi laments.
“Three families or 11 people are squeezed in one booth. I’m very disappointed. We have to queue for everything, including using the bathroom and getting food. Can you imagine, one bathroom for hundreds of people? We need to queue for an hour just to get food. Three times a day, because we get a meal trice. But the menu’s always the same, fried chicken, egg and fish - every day.”
He is desperate to find a new place to stay. But he still hasn’t signed an agreement with the company.
“We want Lapindo to buy our house as soon as possible and call for a clearly defined deadline to pay. We want the money cash and latest in one year. If not we will sue Lapindo. We will fight for our right till we get it.”
Recently, Indonesian started trying to slow the flow by dropping chains of heavy concrete balls into the yawning crater, thus creating a giant plug.
This has so far proven to be useless.
Vincent Santoso says what needs to happen is a change in the governments mindset.
“In handling the mud problem, the government and Lapindo always think in an economic dimension, never ecologically….The mud pouring has made everyone more aware of the consequences of exploration, now they have a proof.”