Indonesians look for miracle to save homes from mud

Published: Wednesday, September 13, 2006, 9:03 [IST]
 

SIDOARJO, Indonesia, Sep 13:  Village chief Haji Hasan is looking for a miracle to save what is left of the Indonesian hamlet of Kedungbendo from a torrent of mud flowing unchecked from an exploratory oil well.

The mud has already swamped an area larger than Monaco, triggering an environmental disaster that has inundated four villages and wiped out 20 factories and fields of crops in the Sidoarjo area of East Java province.

So far, engineers have failed to stop the flow that started on May 29 when what has become a sea of grey mud started oozing from a hole about 150 metres from the Benjar Panji- oil well, causing 10,000 residents to flee their homes.

Faced with the prospect the mud flow could break through roughly made dykes and wipe out the rest of the village, Hasan has turned to psychics for advice.

''I believe in miracles. Moses had a stick to part the sea. So, probably there is someone with powers out there who could help,'' said Hasan, whose call for help has attracted dozens of psychics who say they can stop the mud using supernatural powers.

''I am trying to find a solution. I don't care if people call me crazy,'' Hasan said, before meeting some of the psychics.

Half of his village has been submerged. All that can be seen in some areas are roof tops sticking out of mud, rows of dead trees and ruins of factories that used to make watches and shoes.

The mudflow has also disrupted a key road linking Indonesia's second largest city of Surabaya to its industrial suburbs.

The unfolding environmental mess has put well operator PT Lapindo Brantas under fire despite its assertions that the mud flow is not connected with its drilling operation.

Efforts to plug the mud flow with concrete have so far failed.

The company is now starting work on a new technique to stop the mud by slant digging from three relief wells.

''If the mud burst really comes from our well, this mechanism guarantees a stoppage. From the beginning, we have said the mud burst did not come from the Banjar Panji well,'' said Yuniwati Teryana, Lapindo's chief spokeswoman.

''Everyone is frustrated because of the uncertainty. We are trying our best but we do not know what has caused the burst. Only God knows the answer,'' she said.

Several experts say the mudflow could have been triggered by a crack at about 6,000 feet (1,800 metres) in the well. Another theory has speculated volcanic activities in the wake of the May 27 Java earthquake may also played a role.

ANGRY AND WORRIED RESIDENTS

Anger among affected residents and those who live near the emergency dykes, built as part of efforts to contain the mud, has mounted in recent weeks. Meanwhile police have named nine suspects, all linked to Lapindo or PT Energi Mega Persada, the company that owns Lapindo, in an environmental pollution investigation. Prosecutors have not yet filed formal charges.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has formed a national team led by the energy minister to tackle the mud flow which appears to be like a slowly ticking time bomb.

Around 50,000 cubic metres spurt out daily from the well and if that continues until next month, the mud flow will reach a volume equalling the lava emitted from a recent eruption by Java's most active volcano.

With Indonesia's rainy season starting in October, the ad hoc stone-and-gravel dykes holding back the flow could face fresh pressure.

If the barriers fail, a surge of muddy water would submerge more land, including the other half of Kedungbendo.

''If that happens, our village will just be a name on the map,'' said Hasan whose office directly faces the dykes.

Lapindo has pledged to strengthen the dykes and there are also plans to channel mud into the sea.

But there are concerns the mud could pollute the ocean, a source of income for millions living on Java's eastern coast.

Officials said the mud must be treated first so that the output would not be hazardous before entering the sea.

''Without treatment, it is forbidden to channel the mud. We will not give a blank check,'' Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said on a visit to the scene this month.

Authorities were looking at removing the water from the mud, treating it and then allowing it to flow into the sea through a 20 km pipeline still under construction. The project might take six months to be approved, Witoelar said.

Lapindo's security manager Budi Susanto said that was too long as the dykes could collapse by December if the mud continues to gush unchecked.

That is why village chief Hasan is prepared to put his faith in a shaman, who under a trance said the mud flow was caused by the ghost of a slain unionist.

''Nobody has an answer. So, if she comes up with any, even a non-scientific one, I will believe. I need to,'' he said.

Reuters 

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