The strange, slow-motion disaster of the mud volcano

A seemingly unstoppable mud volcano has displaced thousands of Indonesians.

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 Java Island 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.

Having lost his backyard cigarette factory to the mud, Sunarto is trying to diversify into chicken-rearing. But the closure of a damaged toll road has snarled traffic for miles, putting a damper on his plans.

"The local economy has collapsed. The traffic is out of control. People don't have money to spend, because they've lost their jobs. Even if you want to start a business, there's nobody buying anything," he says.

The disaster has become a political liability for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose hesitant response was complicated by his ties to Minister of Public Welfare Aburizal Bakrie, a prominent businessman whose family-run conglomerate owns Lapindo. Political opponents say that Mr. Bakrie, formerly chief economics minister, only kept his cabinet post in an April reshuffle because he is a financial backer of President Yudhoyono, who faces reelection in 2009.

Whatever the political calculations in Jakarta, disgruntled residents here blame both parties for their plight. A painted banner across an abandoned stretch of toll road in the disaster zone reads "Lapindo + Government = Madness."

The onset of monsoon rains adds urgency to the task of the engineers who must reinforce the levees to prevent the ooze from spreading. "The risk is that the rain will weaken the sandbags [inside the levees], so we need to pump out more mud from the dams," says Mr. Zukarnaen.

Outside the dam, new fissures keep opening up, usually small bubbles of methane gas and water that quickly draw a crowd. As with the big hole, engineers prefer to manage the flows, instead of trying to close them, as this might trigger a bigger explosion elsewhere.

An eventual fix for the mudflow could be years away. In June, Japan offered to lend Indonesia $110 million to build a 130-foot high dam around it. Japanese scientists say that the weight of the exposed mud, once it dried, could act as a lid on the hole, an Indonesian minister said. But a decision on Japan's offer is pending.

Meanwhile, the mud keeps flowing. Sri Mulyani and the other remaining residents of Renonkenongo, a village that was inundated last November, have been ordered to evacuate. Their village will soon be used as a runoff channel.

A mosque still stands on the main road, and Friday prayers draw dozens of sarong-clad worshipers. But most houses are submerged.

"At the beginning, I thought the problem could be fixed … but now I know I will never live here again," says Ms. Mulyani.

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