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Plan to plug mud volcano has holes, expert says

Indonesian plans to plug a mud volcano that has displaced more than 10,000 people by dropping clusters of concrete balls into it is unlikely to stop the flow, a Japanese scientist said Tuesday.
An aerial view shows houses flooded with mud in Sidoarjo in Indonesia's East Java province
Houses in Sidoarjo, Indonesia, are flooded with mud in December. More than 10,000 people have been displaced after a drilling accident in May.Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

Indonesian plans to plug a mud volcano that has displaced more than 10,000 people by dropping clusters of concrete balls into it is unlikely to stop the flow, a Japanese scientist said Tuesday.

The mud eruption that has inundated entire villages since May followed an oil-drilling accident in Sidoarjo, an industrial suburb on the eastern part of Java island.

Numerous efforts to cap the flow have failed, and it has become a political and environmental issue. The government and the drilling company are under fire from critics for what they say were lax safety standards.

In the latest effort to brake the flow of hot liquid mud, the government has announced plans to drop 1,500 concrete balls in clusters linked by metal chains and weighing 800-1,000 pounds each into the mouth of the volcano.

Deep embedding needed, scientist says
“It sounds very difficult right now to stop it. It was coming from a very large crater, so you need a very large structure that can plug that,” said James Mori, a scientist from the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University.

“I think that might be a little bit difficult unless you can put it very deep. You have to get it maybe 500 meters (547 yards) down.”

Rudi Novrianto, a spokesman for the team tasked with stopping the mud, said the plan would go ahead.

Two towers are being built to launch the 375 chains of balls into a 55-yard hole from where the mud has been gushing, with each chained cluster consisting of four balls, he said.

“We are optimistic that the work will reduce the mud flow,” he told Reuters. “We are preparing the infrastructure so that the work will be safe.”

Mud volcanoes are often caused by a buildup of pressure from sediments crushed several miles below the surface that release methane and other gases. They are often found near oil and gas deposits, also caused by a crush of organic matter.

Drilling company blamed for mud flow
As in Java, they can also happen near where tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust rub together.

PT Lapindo Brantas, the company in charge of the drilling, has been blamed for the mud flow and required by the government to pay $420 million to victims and for efforts to stop the mud.

Mori said the mud volcano was an accident waiting to happen, and both the drilling and an earthquake two days before probably precipitated the disaster.

“I think even if the particular eruption had not happened in 2006, probably it would have happened some time,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an workshop of the mud volcano organized by Indonesia’s research and technology ministry.

“The kind of things I’ve heard is that the (drilling) procedures were very safe. In a sense, I think it’s a sort of bad luck,” Mori said.

When asked if the mud flow would have happened regardless of which company conducted the drilling, he said: “I think so.”

Environmentalists sue
An environmental group has sued Lapindo, its partners and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the mud volcano, demanding the company bears all the costs for stopping it, compensating victims and restoring the environment.

Lapindo and PT Energi Mega Persada Tbk, which indirectly controls it, dispute whether the mud flow was caused by the drilling and also whether Lapindo alone should shoulder the cost. However, Lapindo has agreed to pay about $302 per square yard for swamped land and damaged buildings, and about $14.50 per square meter for inundated rice fields.

Energi is owned by the Bakrie Group, controlled by the family of Indonesia’s chief social welfare minister, Aburizal Bakrie.