THE STRANGE, SLOW-MOTION DISASTER OF THE MUD VOLCANO

05 December 2007 | 04:29 Code : 16140 Geoscience events
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On one side of the levee, a line of trucks waits on a clogged, two-lane road....

  On one side of the levee, a line of trucks waits on a clogged, two-lane road under a broiling sun. On the other, a vast lake of mud stretches to the horizon. Neither appears to be moving. In the distance, a trail of white smoke rises from a hole in the ground where the mud flow began 18 months ago. Despite attempts to stanch the sludge, such as by dropping giant concrete balls from helicopters into the fissure, the mud continues to gush, swallowing everything in its path. Prone to earthquakes and volcanoes, Indonesia is no stranger to natural disasters. But what befell this densely populated slice of JavaIsland was, by most accounts, a man-made calamity. Last May, an Indonesian energy company drilling for natural gas accidentally opened a fissure in the ground from where hot, viscous mud began erupting. The unstoppable stinking ooze has since swallowed up 11 towns, destroying homes, factories, schools, and farms, and forcing some 16,000 people to uproot. But its calm oily surface is deceptive. The mud, which contains heavy metals and chemicals such as benzene and sulfurdioxide, has also contaminated rivers and wells in a city-sized area that was semi-industrial farmland and a shrimp production zone. Indonesia's national planning agency has put the economic damages at $334 million a month and says the final bill could be as high as $8.6 billion. A network of dams now holds back the mud, and engineers are trying to pump some of the sludge out to sea. Already, an estimated 1 billion cubic feet of mud has inundated an area of 2.5 square miles. "Every day that goes by, we hope it will stop," says Ahmad Zulkarnaen, a spokesman for a special disaster relief agency. By now, though, the mud volcano has become an implacable hazard around which daily life flows. Scruffy men appear at gridlocked junctions to direct traffic for a few cents. Displaced entrepreneurs scout out new sites for their factories and press for more compensation. Many are still furious at Lapindo Brantas, the energy company. It blames the eruption on an earthquake that struck Central Java two days earlier, a theory disputed by most foreign geologists. A presidential decree mandated a $412 million compensation fund, but the company has insisted on paying 20 percent now and the rest within two years. At an outdoor market where around 700 homeless families are living, Sunarto, a businessman, says he refuses to accept the 20 percent, worth about $6,500 based on the value of his substantial property. He says he and other villagers prefer to stay together as a community, but can't restart their lives elsewhere without adequate up-front compensation.

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