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The Indonesian Mud Flood

by dvx Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 09:42:11 AM EST

In this morning's Breakfast I noted this NYT item:

KEDUNGBENDO, Indonesia, Oct. 5 -- It started as a natural gas well. It has become geysers of mud and water, and in a country plagued by earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis another calamity in the making, though this one is largely man-made.

Eight villages are completely or partly submerged, with homes and more than 20 factories buried to the rooftops. Some 13,000 people have been evacuated. The four-lane highway west of here has been cut in two, as has the rail line, dealing a serious blow to the economy of this region in East Java, an area vital to the country's economy. The muck has already inundated an area covering one and a half square miles.

And it shows no signs of stopping.

This is an environmental disaster story, complete with a villain (if not a happy ending).

The Sydney Morning Herald contributes further information as to the extent of the disaster:

The estimated damage bill from the mud spill already exceeds $200 million, and experts warn they may not be able to stem the torrent of mud, which has increased to more than 100,000 cubic metres a day.


The Minister for Public Works, Djoko Kirmanto, reading from orders issued by Dr Yudhoyono, said "around 400 hectares of the affected area flooded with mud is now declared a 'disaster area' and not fit for habitation".

Although this event is just now breaking through the global threshold, it has actually been simmering since may. A report by the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released in July recounts:

Since 29 May 2006, a mud volcano has been emitting `hot mud' in Sidoarjo district in East Java, Indonesia. Mud volcanoes are geological phenomena due to subsurface over-pressurized mud layers. The cause of the eruption has not yet been established. However, it may be linked to the gas exploration activities by Lapindo Brantas at the Panjar Banji I well.

The mud volcano emits mud at an average rate of more than 40,000 m3/day, and has inundated 4 adjacent villages, displacing nearly 7,000 people. Almost 12,000 (accumulative) medical treatments have been carried out, mainly for people affected by the release of hydrogen sulphide gas.

What happened? According to the NYT report, the Indonesian company Lapindo Brantas was drilling for gas in the vicinity of the town of Kedungbendo (at least one report mentions Australian involvement in the project). The company had reached a depth of 9000 feet, and "... continued to drill to this depth even though it had not installed what is known as a casing around the well to the levels required under Indonesian mining regulations, and good mining practices...".

Of course, good practice is expensive.

And what happened next? As the NYT recounts:

The company experienced problems with the drilling that led to a loss of pressure in the well. That is when the mud started seeping in from the sides of the unprotected well bore, at a depth of about 6,000 feet.

The mud was stopped by cement plugs that the company had inserted into the well hole. The mud then sought other avenues of escape, eventually breaking through the earth, and creating mud volcanoes in several places that resemble the geysers of Yellowstone.

And that since May.

Since then, the outlook has become more grim. Attempts to contain the mudflow with earth dikes have failed. The most recent failure left the toll road to Surabaya, the region's main traffic artery, inundated:

And the rainy season starts in just two months, which will naturally exacerbate the situation.

So apparently the only option left is to divert the mud flow into the Pongo River, which empties into the sea not far from the site.

"It will be the death of the ecosystem around that area," said Amien Widodo, an environmental geologist who teaches at the November 10 Institute of Technology in Surabaya. There is debate whether the mud is toxic. [Australian media are tagging it as definitely toxic. -ed.] But the sheer volume alone will smother just about everything in its path, he said.

And nobody seems to know just how long this can last. One unsubstantiated Indonesian article speculated that the mudflow could go on for 100 years.

And who is the villain of this piece?

According to the NYT, Lapindo Brantas is owned by Aburizal Bakrie, number 6 (with family) on Forbes' Indonesia 40 Richest list (with a net worth of $1.2bn) and currently Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for the Economy (NYT).

So remediation costs and compensation for the displaced population are covered, right? Well...

Last month, Lapindo's parent company announced that it was selling Lapindo for $2 to Lyte Ltd., a company that is registered in the offshore island of Jersey. The majority shareholder in the parent company is the Bakrie Group, and the Bakrie Group is also the sole owner of Lyte, according to public documents. (NYT)

As the NYT so aptly (if obviously notes elsewhere, "Many fear [the company] will declare bankruptcy, allowing its owners to walk away."

Obviously the company claims it exercised due care. However,

Several Western and Indonesian mining engineers spoke about the matter, some offering graphs and mining details that have not been made public, but only on the condition that they not be identified, for fear of running afoul of Mr. Bakrie, the billionaire company owner.(NYT)

Nor are criminal proceedings advancing:

After the first eruptions, in late May, the police in Sidoarjo, the district at the center of the disaster, began an investigation, but it appears to have languished. (NYT)

However, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that: "A police investigation has charged several Lapindo employees with negligence."

So, to sum up, we have a situation where unsustainable, greed-driven exploitation of natural resources (amounting to criminal negligence) on behalf of - ultimately - Indonesia's sixth richest family has produced a chronic ecological disaster that has displaced 13,000 people to date (with the potential for many more) and disrupted the region's economy. Meanwhile, the ultimate beneficiary will, through a combination of influence and Western-style corporate law, be able to shield his assets entirely from the consequences his criminal negligence, leaving the community at large to deal with the consequences.

Good job on this write-up, thanks. I can't believe all the bad things that keep happening to that country...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 10:42:58 AM EST

Every day I am more convinced that we desperately need a supranational legislative body that can effectively set and enforce laws.  There is the UN, but it is too bound by the interests of a few powerful countries.  The world is getting too small to allow these types of environmental disasters to be handled by the very people responsible for letting them happen.  God, it is so frustrating...

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 11:53:50 AM EST
Economics is always ahead of politics, and the global economy will create a global polity. There is already a global elite.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 11:56:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yup. Guaranteed. Now, what form global government will take is the interesting issue.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 12:08:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ugly, initially, if history is any guide. The question is how many rounds of world war there will be, and whether a global revolution will be needed, before we can have a global democracy.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 12:26:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am not sure forming a global government would solve much. The problem is enforcement. How much commitment can individual countries and companies provide? How the global village will agree on that? I am afraid that practical enforcement will look like an outright war. At least, the meaningful enforcement and in the initial stage.

One organization which does some enforcing protection of the environment is Sea Shepherd. But I hardly know other examples.

by das monde on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 11:55:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
enforcement is a key component of a functional government, of course.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Oct 7th, 2006 at 05:14:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is frustrating, particularly as the only really unique facet of this case is the chronic mud-vomiting. Every other aspect - land-rape, corruption, gaming of bankruptcy laws - has played out many different times and places.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman
by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 01:44:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Amazing. I don't know of anything in human experience that would have led someone to anticipate this -- perhaps one of our geo-knowledgeable people can say more about this.

On a tangent --

Mother Nature can store up some remarkably nasty stuff underground:

...Vast volumes of basaltic lava paved over a large expanse of primeval Siberia in a flood basalt event. Today the area covered is about 2 million km² and estimates of the original coverage are as high as 7 million km². The original volume of lava is estimated to range from 1 to 4 million km³.


Of course that was about 500 million years ago. In what is almost the modern era, from the perspective of deep geology, events of this sort have been more moderate:

...The bulk of the volcanic eruption occurred at the Western Ghats (near Mumbai)some 66 million years ago....it is estimated that the original area covered by the lava flows was as large as 1.5 million km². The present volume of lava is estimated to have been 512,000 km³.


And almost yesterday:

The Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes known as the Yellowstone supervolcano, is a volcanically active region in Yellowstone National Park. It measures 55 kilometers (34 mi) by 72 kilometers (44 mi)....within the past two million years, it has undergone three extremely large explosive eruptions, up to 2,500 times the size of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption....the most recent such eruption produced the Lava Creek Tuff 640,000 years ago and spread a layer of volcanic ash over most of the North American continent. Smaller steam explosions occur every 20,000 years or so; an explosion 13,000 years ago left a 5 kilometer diameter crater....


The widespread image of nature as benign and stable is false, and is a psychological obstacle to proper appreciation of the growing climate crisis.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 05:14:22 PM EST
I'm as perfectly baffled as many. I did a small round of chats, but everyone I spoke to is just scratching their heads just like I do. So I think I'll just echo your observation for now: I don't know of any prior example that could possibly have helped in anticipating this disaster. This is a super blow out of mud - has that been observed in the oil industry before?

While I was reading up on it, I found this beauty of insult after injury: "At least the mud is not toxic".

As for a calm peaceful Earth, that's an illusion humanity has selected because we've been relatively abstained from sudden, catastrophical events. And in that tangent, I am the one predicting gloom this time: as long as the human population grows, these kind of disasters will get a whole lot worse in scale, number and severity. And if Yellowstone would actually go, we're really in for a world of hurt.

(BTW, small correction, the Siberian traps are dated some 249-250 million years ago. The Wikipedia entry is deceptive at this point by stating it was "the biggest in 500 million years". Check out the website at the University of Bristol, here, for an easy introduction on the topic.)

by Nomad on Sat Oct 7th, 2006 at 09:16:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Only 250 million years ago? Yikes! That was a close one.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 04:56:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
man, that is serious...

when i lived in hawaii during the 80's, kilauea volcano on mauna kea was churning out enough lava PER DAY to make a 6-lane highway from new york to chicago, pouring into the ocean and making it boil, with clouds of sulpuric acidulous steam, and sometimes turning instantly to a roughish black sand.

mama nature don't mess around...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 03:34:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And there's our "cheap" fossil fuel.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Oct 6th, 2006 at 05:51:51 PM EST
See this exchange in a similar vein:

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Oct 7th, 2006 at 04:58:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Imagine "driving to see your family to the next country over shouldn't cost €200".

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Oct 7th, 2006 at 05:13:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Translation: "I've always been this profligate, so must be my God-given right."

<bangs head on keyboard>

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Oct 7th, 2006 at 05:31:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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