09/28/2006, 00.00
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Java: eruption of boiling mud, a "new Pompei"

by Mathias Hariyadi

For four months, millions of cubic metres of boiling mud have been flowing around the whereabouts of Porong; entire villages have already been submerged and 10,000 people displaced. Geologists have warned of a possible eruption similar to that of Pompei.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – The Indonesian government will have to transfer around 3,000 families from Porong (eastern Java), whose homes have been flooded by a boiling mudflow gushing out of the drill of a gas exploration field. The authorities must also channel the mud to the sea to prevent further destruction, the Minister for Public Works, Djoko Kirmanto, said yesterday. The President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, declared the area of 400 stricken hectares as a "disaster zone". Meanwhile, experts have warned about the possible risk of volcanic eruption similar to that in Pompei.

Since 29 May, boiling mud has been gushing out of a fault created in the drilling well of the firm Lapindo Brantas in Porong, Sidoarjo regency, province of eastern Java. The mud comes from a depth of around 6km at a rate of around 50,000 cubic metres per day. It has already flooded four villages, engulfing at least 1,810 homes, 18 schools, 20 factories, and 12 mosques, and forcing the evacuation of 10,000 people. To date, 250 hectares of residential land and rice fields have been covered by 10 million cubic metres of mud, that reach a depth of five metres.

Minister Kirmanto said efforts to block the mudflow went on until academics concluded there was no way to stop it and that the only option was to contain the flow and channel it towards the sea, seeking to limit damage done. The Environment Minister, who had initially expressed fears that the mudflow could cause environmental damage in the sea, finally gave assurance that the mud was not toxic and that once in the sea, it would not do any more damage. But environmental groups say the mud contains toxic substances.

The fear of the people

Meanwhile, tension is rising among local residents: for months, they have watched their homes, work and fields being submerged, and now they are protesting the absence of proper intervention. Road blocks on the route from Malang to Surabaya have become the order of the day, with queues of cars of around 4 to 5 km long. Thousands of people have erected tents near the edge of the road, seeking shelter to escape the mud. Anang Iskandar, head of the Surabaya police, said his men "will shoot on demonstrators whose actions could lead to the destruction of state facilities."

Villages in the vicinity have put up embankments to stem the advance of the mud. In some areas of Siring, the mud is already 70cm deep: if the embankment collapses, everything will be engulfed.

Lapindo Brantas is owned by the businessman Aburizal "Ical" Bakrie, also Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, and a member of the same party as the deputy president Jusuf Kalla, with who he is said to have excellent relations.

The threat of eruption

On 26 September, Edy Sunardi, chairman of the Indonesian Geologists' Association, told a panel discussion of experts that by December an eruption of boiling mud could "sweep Porong away from the earth". Citing scientific studies, Sunardi said a mud volcano had been lying dormant under Porong for 4.9 millions of years. In December this could erupt, with mud sweeping across kilometers of land, as Mt Vesuvius did in Pompei: "The potential disaster is near. The hot mud quantity is beyond our imagination... my opinion as a geologist is that we have no choice other than to send this mud to rivers and the sea. We are now reaching the last days of September and soon the rainy season will start", which could swell the volume of mud and encourage eruption.

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