Time bomb in Sidoarjo
AsiaViews, Edition: 32/III/Aug/2006
The mudflow catastrophe has changed the surface of Sidoarjo regency. An even bigger disaster awaits if the mud doesn’t stop flowing.
AT asar (the third Muslim prayer of the day), the call to arms was heard from the Nurul Huda mosque. The villagers at East Renokenongo were asked to gather at the Surabaya-Gempol toll road, last Wednesday afternoon. Around 100 ran out of their houses, carrying weapons—crowbars, iron rods, wooden bats. War was declared as celebration of the nation’s independence drew near.
About 100 people rushed to the toll road. There, more then 50 people from the neighboring villages of Besuki and Jatirejo, were breaking rocks using plows. The Renokenongo villagers raised their weapons to prevent the forced break. After all, they depended on the embankments, made of sand and rock, for their future existence.
A quarter of a million cubic meters of mud, the height of a roof, was gaining in volume and it was just a matter of time before it would overflow. One of the four hamlets, Balongkenongo, has been flooded—428 houses in all. The danger pushed them to wage war on the eve of August 17, Independence Day.
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The above war between two villages is a small example of a series of problems that came with the burning mud at PT Lapindo Brantas’ gas exploration location in Porong subdistrict, Sidoarjo regency, East Java. The mud started to flow on May 29, and so far the mud has inundated parts of the Porong area. At any moment, five villages could be uprooted. Around 8,134 villagers have fled to seek shelter.
Economic, environmental, and social losses can be calculated in no time. Lapindo claimed that it had allocated US$70 million (around Rp665 billion) in emergency funds to handle the toxic sludge. “Until now US$31 million has been used up,” said Imam P. Agustino, General Manager of Lapindo Brantas, to Tempo.
When the mud started gushing out, the volume was estimated at around 5,000 cubic meters. Today, it has reached 50,000 cubic meters a day. This is roughly the equivalent of 690 large container trucks.
If Banjar Panji-1 continues to discharge at 50,000 cubic meters daily, by October 31 the volume could reach 7.1 million cubic meters. At the end of the year, it will break through the 10-million-cubic-meter mark. This is twice the volume of the lava crater atop Mount Merapi when it erupts.
The danger becomes more imminent when the rainy season arrives at the beginning of November. Surabaya’s November 10 Institute of Technology (ITS) estimates that the rainy season will break the levees, causing the contained mud to overflow, the toll road to submerge, and the railroad to be engulfed with mud. That’s what lies ahead in the short term.
So far, three teams of experts have been formed to find a solution to the mudflow and manage the impacts. They work in parallel. Each team consists of representatives from Lapindo, the government, and several experts from leading universities.
Among them are experts from ITS, the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), and Gadjah Mada University. Team One, which takes care of the mud, is now struggling with the third scenario, whose short-term target (see Alarm Bells) is to stop the flow and find a rapid solution for the millions of cubic meters of mud on the ground.
The first scenario was drilling the old well—Banjar Panji-1—to determine the source of the discharge and plug it up. The result: total failure.
The team of experts then implemented the second and third scenarios, which essentially are to avoid the obstruction in the old well which failed in the first scenario. The second scenario was to drill from the mouth of the Banjar Panji-1 well. At a depth of 500 meters, the wall narrowed and could not be pierced. The equipment even had to be left behind at a depth of 300 meters. This scenario, too, was a total failure.
Only the third scenario is left. At this stage, a relief well was dug first. Once again, it had to be stopped—at least for the time being. To quote the General Manager of Lapindo, Imam P. Agustino, “The platform was flooded, so the third scenario must be postponed.” The intention is to wait until the location is safe from the stagnating water.
The schedule has been delayed by a month to the end of November or the middle of December. Learning from the experience, Lapindo decided to drill in three points simultaneously last Friday. However, there’s still a possibility of failure. Here are the calculations.
The three scenarios are based on the hypothesis that the mud came from a crack in the well of the Banjar Panji-1 wall. But, there is another hypothesis: what happened was a volcanic phenomenon, like in Bledug Kuwu in Purwodadi, Central Java. Until today, it’s still discharging sludge, forming a swamp.
So, a fourth scenario must be prepared. Rudi Rubiandini, member of Team One, explained to Tempo that volcanic mud could only be overcome by operating three or five relief wells simultaneously. All wells are used to surround the cracks where the mud surfaces. The problem is, “It’s expensive and time-consuming.”
For example, a rig and its operational costs require Rp95 billion. The costs can escalate because contractors and the rental charge of drilling equipment will be higher in danger zones. Assuming normal costs, the five wells will require Rp475 billion.
Even if the funds are available, however, “today it’s hard to obtain an available rig amid the soaring oil prices,” said Rubi.
It’s no wonder that some experts are losing hope. “I doubt that the mudflow can be stopped in a matter of months,” said Amin Widodo, geologist and head of Disaster Studies at ITS. Other experts are even considering the possible end of Porong.
Rovicky Dwi Putrohari, an independent geologist, wrote that in Porong-1 well location, 7 kilometers to the east of Banjar Panji-1, were geological indications which “showed mudflows happening in prehistoric eras.” That was his analysis. Rovicky noted something worrying: the mudflow in Porong-1 would not stop for decades or even hundreds of years.
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Banjar Panji-1 poses a question. What will happen if there’s no way to stem the flow of mud? Without expanding the dykes or embankments, the mud is certain to flow in all directions. Until two weeks ago, the capacity of the levees was only 767,000 cubic meters.
The Environment Department said that to contain the mudflow for the next three months, they were preparing 150 hectares of new dykes. As an anticipatory measure, there are 342 additional hectares that could meet the need for the next nine months.
The problem is, the Meteorology & Geophysics Agency predicts that the rainy season is coming in about 30 days. If that’s correct, then the dams will not be able to contain the mud. Mud will flow in all directions, dirtying the surrounding areas. “It’s like waiting for a time bomb that will explode at any moment,” said an official at Sidoarjo.
Whether it explodes or not, the surface of Sidoarjo has changed. The area in which 19 Lapindo gas wells are located is Surabaya’s satellite town. Some of the people commute from Sidoarjo to Surabaya. They live in houses on both sides of the toll road, including around the center of the mud discharge.
In the emergency roster, there is the Tanggulangin Anggun Sejahtera Housing Complex, standing by in case the mud demolishes the 6,000 houses along the sides of the dam.
The regional space plan for Porong is certain to be adjusted. If the worst prediction comes true and the majority of Porong is inundated, “the region will be converted into an industrial zone,” said Regent of Sidoarjo, Win Hendrarso. Previously, Porong was planned as a residential area.
Dozens of factories are already submerged. What remains of PT Catur Putra Surya, where labor activist Marsinah used to work, are only its roofs.
What worries Win is December, the month with the highest rainfall. If the dam is seen to be inadequate, “We have no choice but to divert the mud directly to the sea, through the Porong River,” said Win.
Lapindo recommends the same solution. They reason that, rather than wait for discharge pipes to be completed, it’s better to temporarily use the river to let the mud discharge, for example, for three months. “This is not the best choice. But at least, this is the best of all options,” said Bambang P. Istadi, Explorations Manager of Lapindo.
This recommendation has been approved—with conditions—by the Sidoarjo Regent. Moreover, Vice President Jusuf Kalla has given the green light for the last scenario to be the option, namely to prioritize saving people, the toll road, the railroad and the environment.
Unfortunately, the mud will exacerbate the damage to the Porong River ecosystem. And, when it enters the sea, the mud will automatically pollute the Madura Strait and the surrounding seas. The 1,600-hectare fishponds on the shores of Sidoarjo will also be impacted. What if that happens?
“Let nature do its work,” said Amin Widodo in response to Tempo’s question. This is an ancient formula, relying on nature’s mechanism to restore life. In the meantime, the people must still use “weapons” to fight the attack of the mud.
By Untung Widyanto, Sunudyantoro, Rohman Taufiq, Zed Abidien, Yosep Suprayogi
Tempo, No. 51/VI/22 – 28 August 2006