East Java mudflow disaster

Down to Earth No. 71, November 2006

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes since May 29th, when hot mud started spurting from the ground near a gas exploration well in Sidoardjo, East Java. Over the following weeks, villages were submerged, farmland was ruined, businesses and schools closed and livelihoods lost, as the mud inundated the surrounding area. The government has done little to help, although the mud continues to flow, perhaps because the company responsible was owned by a senior member of the government. Major impacts on the wider marine and coastal environment are expected. These will have knock-on effects for the many thousands of people who depend on fish and shrimp for their living.

The mudflow started two days after the earthquake which killed over 6,000 people in neighbouring Central Java and Yogyakarta, making May 2006 a particularly catastrophic month for Indonesia's most densely populated island. But whereas May 27th was a natural disaster, May 29th was the result of human error.

Lapindo Brantas' Banjar Panji I gas exploration well had reached a depth of over 3,000m when the mudflow started, according to an UN agency report. Police said there was a blow-out in the well-shaft and that the company failed to cap the hole properly. A New York Times report quoting environmental geologist Amien Widodo said the company had not installed casing around the well to the levels required under Indonesian mining regulations. The mud started seeping into the well at a depth of around 1,800 metres, and cement plugs were put in to stop it. This led to the pressurised mud forcing its way to the surface near the well.

The first and largest of the breakthrough mudflows erupted 200m southwest of the well, shooting up into the air like a geyser. A second and then a third mudflow appeared in the following days to the northeast, but these were reported to have stopped flowing on June 5th.

The mud has not only continued to flow from the first rupture, but the daily amount gushing out has increased, from an initial 5,000m3 per day reported by the environment ministry, to around 40,000m3 per day reported by the United Nations Disaster Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) in July and increasing to 100,000-150,000m3 per day, as reported by Lapindo itself in October.



At least eight people have been killed in a large gas pipe explosion near the mudflow site, the Jakarta Post reported on November 23rd. At least two more people were missing, feared dead. The pipe belonged to state-owned gas company, Pertamina. The authorities suspect that the weight of mud from the Sidoardjo mud volcano caused the underground pipe to collapse and explode (Jakarta Post 23/Nov/06)


The impacts of the disaster were severe and immediate. A large number of people were affected by the high levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) which escaped when the mudflow broke through to the surface on May 29th. According to the UNDAC mission, 800-900 people sought medical treatment after exposure to and inhalation of the toxic gas. Many others had diarrhoea. On 4 July, 34 people were still in local hospitals or health posts. In early August, the environment group WALHI reported that Sidoardjo hospital had as many as 1,500 patients registered as affected by gas. Symptoms included dizziness, breathlessness, breathing difficulties and irritation.

The environment ministry reported levels of H2S at 700 parts per million (ppm) on the first day of the mud flow but this dropped to 3 ppm on the second day and apparently zero on the third. Small amounts of H2S continue to escape from the site, at levels to make the air smell foul. According to Lapindo, this poses no threat to nearby communities.

Flooded villages
By July 2006, four nearby villages - Renokenongo, Siring, Jatirejo and Kedungbendo had been inundated by the mudflow and the UNDAC team noted 7,800 people as internally displaced persons. The local authorities had provided temporary shelter in a market, and others were put up by families nearby. Local government data reported said that 744 homes had been flooded by the mud.

Things were to get even worse: in a press release dated October 18th, Lapindo reported that the mud had affected eight villages, covering an area of 400 hectares. Around 3,300 families (ca. 16,500 people) had been relocated. The company said that the displaced people had been moved into more permanent housing and were receiving rental assistance (including 6 months' food assistance) provided by Lapindo.

Villagers forced to leave their homes have been offered three compensation options, and most are reported to be opting for cash payments, rather than replacement land and housing provided by the authorities. What will happen to the villagers in the long term is not clear.

As well as villagers' homes, businesses, schools and places of worship were inundated by the mud tide. As many as twenty factories were reported to be buried to the rooftops. Local government data reported by the press in July said 126 hectares of paddy fields, 17 hectares of sugar cane and 13 km of irrigation channels had been swamped by the mud. Drainage and drinking water pipes had been affected. The mud also washed over main transport arteries: the Surabaya-Gempol toll road was forced to close and rail services were disrupted. The road will close permanently and the railway will be rerouted, according to latest reports.

Lapindo reported that although there had been no fatalities from the incident itself, two men died as a result of heavy equipment accidents. The company said it had reviewed the site's safety procedures and had ensured that the men's families were compensated (there are now more fatalities - see stop press, above).

Toxic or not?
Lapindo itself discounts media reports which stated the mud was toxic or poisonous, citing its own testing and sampling programme and a UNEP report. Lapindo says the mud is "only mildly reactive under extreme conditions". Others say the mud's toxicity is still debatable. Furthermore, the mud emerges at temperatures above 60 degrees Celsius.

The June investigation of the UNDAC mission did not find significant levels of toxicity in the mud, but reported that some samples analysed by the local authorities and university showed that there were high level of toxics, such as heavy metals, including mercury. The UNDAC team thought that the high levels reported may be linked to contamination from industrial sites inundated by the mud, and concluded that more research was needed.

However, the mud's high level of salinity (akin to seawater) is not in doubt. UNDAC warned that if, in the coming rainy season, the mud overflowed onto farmland from the containment basins built on land, the high salt content would be likely to make the surrounding land infertile.

Stopping the flow
There is no quick technical fix to the mudflow. Estimates of when the flow will be stopped have been moved forward several times, following failed attempts to stop the 'mud volcano'. In October, Lapindo reported that international consultants had been appointed to assist with managing drilling operations. One of two relief wells planned was being drilled, with relief well operations designed to stop the underground flow to be completed around the end of 2006. However, there appears to be little confidence in these measures. Some sources in the industry have warned that the mudflow could go on for many more months, or even years.

Damming the mud
The authorities' response to the immediate question of what to do with the mud was to build containment 'basins' or 'ponds' by enclosing areas of land within earth walls, or levees. In its October update, Lapindo reported that containment ponds and levees had been constructed with the assistance of the Indonesian subsidiary of the Dutch company Van Oord, plus 1400 army personnel involved in efforts to stabilise the levee walls and increase containment capacity. In its June-July mission, the UNDAC team found that the 2m high earth dams had indeed helped limit the damage, but were not a sustainable solution as heavy rains in the rainy season would cause the walls to collapse and ponds to overflow. The mission reported they had already observed wall collapses during their dry season visit.

River and sea disposal
The government's decision to channel the mud to the sea via the Porong River was announced in late September, despite warnings from environmentalists and others that this would be likely to destroy the local fisheries and shrimp industries. The UNDAC mission had predicted that if channelled into rivers, the mud could be expected to kill the aquatic ecosystem and have serious humanitarian consequences.

However, this was chosen as the least bad option as it became clear that construction of containment ponds couldn't keep up with the rate the mud was gushing from its underground source.

In its October update, Lapindo reported that preparations were underway to allow for this discharge into the Porong River and that it was working to 'minimise any effects on the ecology of the river'.

WALHI predicted that 4,000 hectares of fish and shrimp ponds in Jabon subdistrict would be ruined and pointed out that Sidoardjo's shrimp farms provided 30% of Indonesian shrimp exports. The group said that the livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk in Sidoardjo, Madura, Surabaya, Pasuruan and Probolinggo were also under threat.

Longer term measures
In an October report, Indonesia's environment ministry said that it was looking at alternatives to prevent the mud ending up in the Madura Straits. These included collecting the mud on the shore and creating a new mangrove wetland area on the coast; using the mud as a building material for road construction; and using it as a fertiliser mix. It remains to be seen whether these options are seriously considered, or whether the mud ends up devastating the river and marine ecosystems as feared.

Armed troops brought in
In September, WALHI's East Java office reported that 11,000 troops from the Brawijaya command had been brought into the area. The group called for an explanation why so many troops had been sent, and why they were armed with M16 rifles if their task was to build the containment levees. The report noted that 16 barracks housing around 600 troops had been built close to the area where untreated mud was being pumped into the Porong River, implying that the troops may have been brought into enforce unpopular measures. More accommodation had been built near another river, the Kali Mati, which had also been reported as a potential dumping place for the mud.


The company and shareholders

The Banjar Panji-1 exploration well is located in the Brantas Production Sharing Contract (PSC) area in Sidoardjo district, East Java province, and is operated by Lapindo Brantas, which has a 50% working interest in the contract. The others shareholders are PT Medco E&P Brantas and the Australian company Santos Ltd.

The well drilling was subcontracted to a company called PT Medici Citra Nusantara Lapindo's parent company was, until recently, Energi Mega Persada, part of group of companies controlled by social affairs minister Aburizal Bakrie (see main text). But Lapindo was sold for US$2 in September to Lyte, a company registered in Jersey, also owned by the Bakrie Group, sparking fears that it would file for bankruptcy to avoid paying the huge costs associated with the Banjar Panji 1 disaster.

In its October update, the company estimated the total costs of relief well drilling and mud management to be US$180million, subject to revision once other costs are known, including the costs of long term mud disposal and proposed infrastructure relocation. Total gross costs to date are estimated at US$56 million.

Santos, the Australian company with an 18% share in the Brantas PSC, holds others interests in East Java: a 40.5% interest in the Sampang PSC, which contains the giant Jeruk and Oyong fields, a 67.5% interest in the Madura Offshore PSC which contains the Maleo field, a 40.1% interest in the Nth Bali 1 PSC, as well as an 18% interest in the producing Brantas PSC.

(Source: New York Times 6/Oct/06; Santos website www.santos.com/Content.aspx?p=190, accessed 9/Nov/06)


Accountability and politics
There is widespread concern that Lapindo's high level political connections will prevent the company being prosecuted and punished for its role in the disaster.

A police investigation, launched soon after the mudflow started, had named nine suspects by the end of July, including three top managerial level staff from Lapindo, its then parent company PT Energi Mega Persada and drilling contractor PT Medici Citra Nusa. The other six were field workers. The limited scope of the legal action so far has been criticised by NGOs, who say that all shareholders in the production sharing contract should be held to account, as set down in the 2001 oil and gas law.

NGO campaigners have also targeted social affairs minister Aburizal Bakrie, the billionaire whose family business empire controls Lapindo. The NGOs want him to be 'deactivated' from the cabinet, due to his connections to Lapindo. Bakrie was also a major contributor to the campaign of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. They also point the finger at government agencies, such as the oil and gas supervisory agency BP-Migas, which has failed in its remit to supervise the industry properly. Government officials are also worried: local district head, Win Hendarso, told theNew York Times, "I am not confident that anyone will ever be prosecuted", reflecting the wide cynicism over the effectiveness of the justice system to hold those responsible to account.

Aburizal Bakrie was the target of a demonstration by Greenpeace in September, when activists sprayed 700kg of Sidoardjo mud in front of his ministry's gate in Jakarta. Greenpeace Southeast Asia director Emmy Hafild said it was shameless for Bakrie to distance himself from the disaster. "We don't have a solution," she told Reuters. "We are an environmental group but right now the focus should be to evacuate people who live in the immediate vicinity of the mudflow."

A group of NGOs - the Advocacy Team for Victims of the Sidoardjo Mud Disaster (TAK-LUSI) - has threatened to sue the government and companies involved in the case. On October 18th they issued a 'legal warning' (somasi) against Lapindo's director, the president, the energy and mineral resources minister, the environment minister, BP-Migas, the East Java governor and the Sidoardjo district head. The document holds Lapindo Brantas Inc. responsible for causing the mudflow and states that the government has neglected its constitutional mandate to carry out the duty of the state to control and manage Indonesia's natural resources for the maximum benefit of the people. It accuses the company and government of failing to address the incident in a timely and appropriate manner and failing adequately to protect those affected. It says the failures violate the victims' right to a clean and healthy environment and calls on the government to ensure that Lapindo and its shareholders bear all the environmental rehabilitation and compensation costs. TAK-LUSA also wants the government to cancel Lapindo's contract. It is demanding that the company and named members of the government issue a public apology for its negligence and legal violations.


East Java: oil and gas extraction in a densely populated area

Indonesian environment group, WALHI, and mining advocacy NGO, JATAM, are calling for a review of oil and gas exploration in densely populated areas like East Java. More than 20 exploration blocks have licences to operate in Java's crowded northern shore area and 13 million people live in sixteen of these blocks alone. In almost each of the last five years there has been an incident in East Java, according to the groups. This year, on top of the Sidoardjo disaster, incidents include a blow-out at the Bojonegoro gas well Sukowati 5 operated by a PetroChina joint venture with Indonesia's state-owned oil company, Pertamina.

The NGOs want the government to acknowledge that Indonesia has no mechanism to protect people in such areas.

In 2000, East Java's population density was over 700 people per square kilometre, and its total population was around 35 million (the Indonesian overall population density is 134 per km2). But the province also contains the third biggest oil reserves in Indonesia, after the East Kalimantan and Riau - and foreign companies are profiting from them. In addition to Australia's Santos (see box above) other overseas companies operating in East Java include: ExxonMobil (US) - notorious for its association with human rights violations in Aceh - in the giant onshore oil and gas field within its Cepu Block; Amerada-Hess (US) in Pangkah (offshore, gas); and ConocoPhillips (US), in Ketapang (offshore). The UK-based oil multinational, BP which is developing the giant Tangguh gas field in West Papua, has in past years been associated with pollution in the area (see DTE 56, February 2003,) but sold its interest in the Kangean offshore blocks to Pt Energi Mega Persada (until recently, Lapindo's parent company) in 2004. (Source: Asia Pulse/Antara 10/Oct/06; Mitrais Indonesia Mining News 16 - 22 April 2005; www.usembassyjakarta.org/petro2003/ch1-Crude%20Oil.pdf, accessed 10/Nov/06).

(Source: EMP Brantas press release: Banjarpanji Incident Update 18/Oct/06; UNDAC Environmental Assessment Hot Mud Flow East Java, Indonesia, Final Technical Report at ochaonline.un.orgSomasi Kedua Untuk Lapindo Brantas, TAK-LUSI 18/Oct/06; Reuters 27&28/Sep/06;New York Times 6/Oct/06; AP 29/Sep/06; Antara 18/Aug/06; WALHI and WALHI East Java press releases on www.walhi.or.id).