Indonesia's Mud Volcano Wreaking Havoc

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 28, 2006; 7:58 PM

PORONG, Indonesia -- Factories that once produced watches and shoes lie under a sea of thick, stinking mud. Villagers stand on hastily constructed dams and gaze at the thousands of homes swallowed by brown sludge.

Four months ago, a torrent of hot mud from deep beneath the surface of Indonesia's seismically charged Java island began surging from a natural gas exploration site following a drilling accident.

The "mud volcano" pours out some 165,000 cubic yards of mud every day _ enough to cover a football field about 75 feet deep. Often spewing out in geyser-like eruptions, the mud has left some 665 acres swamped or abandoned as unsafe, forcing more than 10,000 people from their homes.

Experts say the mud volcano is one of the largest ever recorded on land. Geologists fear the technology may not exist to stop the eruption, saying mud could flow for years or even centuries _ or stop on its own at any time.

The mud is believed to come from a reservoir 3 1/2 miles below the surface that has been pressurized by shifts in the crust or by the accumulation of hydrocarbon gases.

The calamity has underscored the patchy safety record of mining companies exploiting the natural resources of this Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of islands.

Police seized the drilling rig involved in the accident and are investigating whether to bring criminal charges against the principal well owner, PT Lapindo Brantas.

Lapindo, which is linked to the wealthy family of Indonesia's welfare minister, is paying for an ever expanding network of earthen dams to contain the mud, but many people fear the resulting slimy ponds will overflow during the approaching rainy season.

"The volume of mud that is coming out of the hole is not just large, it's enormous," Earl Hunt Jr., an engineer from Woodward, Okla., said while supervising dredging operations.

"We are running out of room up here, period," he said. "If they don't pump it to sea or something soon, then there will be more villages lost."

The government recently gave permission to dump the mud into the sea via a local river. But experts question whether that will get rid of the sludge faster than it gushes from the hole, and environmentalists are opposing the plan as a threat to the marine ecosystem.

The mud, which stands as deep as 16 feet in places, has submerged or washed into houses in four villages. At least 20 factories and many acres of rice fields and prawn farms have been destroyed.

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