Everything sucks at the Lapindo mud volcano

Lapindo mud volcano

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been an enduring focus of attention, and rightly so, ever since it occurred back in 2010. But literally half a world away from the Gulf, a similar drilling-related disaster with many similar features has been taking place for nearly a decade, almost completely under the world’s radar. That’s the Lapindo mud volcano, in the district of Sidoarjo, a few kilometers outside the city limits of Surabaya, the country’s second largest city. Here are a few facts.

The “mud volcano” is actually an upflow of natural gas and pressurized subterranean water. It began when a natural gas well operated by the company PT Lapindo Brantas ruptured in May 2006. The gas began flowing uncontrollably at about 1m cubic feet per day. According to a Durham University study cited by Wikipedia, “They had overestimated the pressure the well could tolerate, and had not placed protective casing around a section of open well. Then, after failing to find any gas, they hauled the drill out while the hole was extremely unstable. By withdrawing the drill, they exposed the wellhole to a “kick” from pressurised water and gas from surrounding rock formations. The result was a volcano-like inflow that the drillers tried in vain to stop.” In other words, the earth sucks.

Used to be factories

As it comes to the surface, the mud and water create a toxic lake; this now covers over 800 ha. It has swallowed several villages, as well as roads, an intercity tollway, factories and fields; 13 people have died and a total of over 13,000 households (i.e. about 50,000 people, although some sources say as many as 100,000) have been displaced.

A massive dyke, reaching up to about 20 meters high in some places, has been constructed to contain the lake. For a fee, displaced villagers will give you access to the top of the dyke, point out features of the volcano (the few there are, in what is essentially a sea of grey mud) and explain what took place. They’ll show you where their villages used to be and sell you DVDs with pictures and movies of the disaster and its aftermath. And for another fee they’ll take you by motorcycle along the top of the dyke, around the perimeter of the mud lake. With a couple of brief photo-stops, this trip takes about an hour.

Showing his “Victim” ID card

Its official name is the Sidoarjo mud flow, but it’s popularly known as Lapindo after the drilling company that seems to be responsible. Lapindo itself blames an earthquake that occurred in Jogjakarta, 280km away. The Indonesian government appears to have agreed, at least tacitly, but there’s more than just a faint chance that this could be related to politics and influence. At the time of the disaster, the national government’s Coordinating Minister for Welfare was Aburizal Bakrie, a business figure who is said to be Indonesia’s third-richest man. Bakrie’s family company, Bakrie Group, is also the owner of PT Lapindo Brantas. Since 2009 Bakrie no longer holds a cabinet position; however, he is now chairman of the Golkar Party, a key member of the unstable coalition that makes up Indonesia’s current government.

Show me where your village was

While PT Lapindo Brantas has been asked to make compensation payments, and some have actually been made, there is no evidence that his company will be held accountable in the way that BP is for the Gulf spill. Most of the compensation being paid is Indonesian government money, not Lapindo’s. Funds set aside for amelioration and remediation are judged by outside observers to be woefully inadequate. Apart from the encircling earthworks, the main form of remediation currently visible is the pumping of vast quantities of the toxic sludge into a nearby river.

With no house, village or job to return to,  the victims of this “natural” disaster have either dispersed, or live in ramshackle refugee camps nearby, subsisting on compensation payments supplemented by whatever they can earn from putting their deprivation on display for visitors. It’s impossible not to wonder what is going through their heads as these unofficial tour guides point out buried buildings, destroyed villages, and the other evidence of their ruined lives. Their lives must suck. Meanwhile the toxic earth continues to suck in the landscape, at a rate of about 100,000 cu.ft. per day. And above all, the system that allowed this accident to occur, and which continues to shiled the most likely responsible party from being held fully accountable, sucks—big time.


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