Sunday June 17, 2007
Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia (AAP)
Reporter: Peter Overton
Producers: Howard Sacre , Julia Timms
At first, we thought this can’t be true, it’s like some sort of pre-historic disaster movie. But it’s real all right. A gigantic volcano of steaming hot mud as far as the eye can see.
It’s already swamped a dozen villages on the Indonesian island of Java – and we mean swamped. Houses, factories, mosques, everything just swallowed by this relentless tide.
Forty thousand people have been left homeless, without jobs, without hope.
And the really infuriating thing is, geologists are 99 percent certain it’s not a natural disaster. It’s man-made.
The prime suspect is a big mining company with strong Australian connections.
PETER OVERTON: The world has never seen anything like this — a gargantuan fountain of mud gushing from the bowels of the earth. Some days, the crater surges wildly, on other days it quietens down, but it never stops. Too thick to drain away, it’s burying everything in its path. This is a tragedy of errors backed by Australian money. A story of cover-up and suffering that goes all the way to Indonesia’s presidential palace. Look — our first glimpse. There it is, there.
DR MARK TINGAY: Yeah, it is a huge, huge eruption.
PETER OVERTON: Those houses would just be inundated inside.
DR MARK TINGAY: They are gone inside. They’re just full — full of mud. Three hundred and sixty degrees all around you for kilometres, is mud.
PETER OVERTON: Even for a top geologist, this site defies belief. Dr Mark Tingay, from Adelaide University, couldn’t wait to see the grand-daddy of all mudflows on Indonesia’s main island of Java, just west of Bali. It’s so unpredictable, we’re allowed just a few minutes at the crater.
DR MARK TINGAY: It’s just incredible the amount of mud and stuff that’s coming out of here — all this fluid.
PETER OVERTON: A boiling, bubbling cauldron, about 100 metres across. This is extraordinary.
DR MARK TINGAY: This is amazing. This is certainly the biggest mud volcano crater I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some of the biggest natural ones in the world.
PETER OVERTON: How hot is it, Mark?
DR MARK TINGAY: This would be — I’d say the temperature ranges from about 70 to 100 degrees Celsius so it’s very, very hot. You wouldn’t want to put your hand in it!
PETER OVERTON: How long can this go for? How long could this mud keep spewing up from underneath us?
DR MARK TINGAY: Well, geologically, mud volcanoes could go on for hundreds of thousands of years but, in terms of sort of man-made eruptions like this, the longest we’ve seen them go for is over 20 years.
PETER OVERTON: No-one knows how it will end, but we do know how it started — with the mining company’s stuff-up. Here’s what happened. This time, last year, there were exploring for natural gas just to the right of the plume of steam. Around here were rice paddies and villages — you can see the roof of the local mosque poking up through the mud just over there. Now, when the drilling got to nearly 3km under the earth, it struck a high-pressure zone and the result was catastrophic.
DR MARK TINGAY: When they were drilling this well, they have encountered this chamber, or this very large reservoir of a highly pressured water. They have lost control there — that water has started to come up the bore hole and then got into another shallower level, brought up — captured all this mud, eroded all this mud and clay as its come and then erupted to the surface. So about 200 metres away from where they were drilling.
PETER OVERTON: The world’s top experts agree this was the straight out human error — most likely a failure to shore up the walls of the bore hole with a protective casing.
DR MARK TINGAY: We’re 90 percent certain that this, that the drilling, is the trigger for this event.
PETER OVERTON: So, lives lost, thousands of lives ruined through ineptitude?
DR MARK TINGAY: ‘Ineptitude’ is a pretty strong word, Peter. That is a very hard one because we don’t know what the conditions were when they were actually drilling. However, certainly the only reason you don’t set casing is to cut costs. Because it takes time to set casing and time is money when you’re drilling.
PETER OVERTON: When it started a year ago, it was a small geyser of mud and steam in a rice paddy. After a few days, though, all hell broke loose, causing a frantic exodus. Levy banks and dams built in great haste collapsed just as quickly. A year later, 12 villages are buried, 20 factories, roads and rice fields are inundated and nearly 40,000 people displaced. We’re not talking a trickle of mud here. We’re talking about something with enormous power and force behind it, aren’t we?
DR MARK TINGAY: The mud is coming up at a great pressure — rates of 100,000 cubic metres a day. Now, in sort of layman’s terms, that’s the equivalent of over 100 Olympics swimming pools a day. It is enough to sort of fill up a standard house in just a few minutes, your living room in 30 seconds.
PETER OVERTON: Disasters on this scale normally attract immediate global aid, but not here. The new homeless invent ways to survive. To see the mud, there is an unofficial toll. Fifty cents to pass and more to park, but can you blame them? Here, everyone is fending for themselves but it’s hard, hard work. This is all to get to that factory that’s deep in mud to plunder all the lights, the electrical boxes, all the fittings in there, then they’ll go and sell them and make a quid so they can live day-to-day. Today’s haul is pretty good and should yield a good price. After this, they went next door and took away the roof. Sowagee, how quickly did the mud come into your home?
SOWAGEE (TRANSLATION): In the first step was 15 minutes our villages was flooded.
PETER OVERTON: Sowagee and his family’s tiny house was amongst the first to go, and they lost everything.
SOWAGEE (TRANSLATION): I was trying to save my children first and then all my stuff later.
PETER OVERTON: Sowagee lost his job, too, as a construction worker. He took us to his last project, repairing a highway which is now the road to nowhere, buried for ever. Who do you blame now?
SOWAGEE (TRANSLATION): This is the mistake of the drilling company.
PETER OVERTON: Lapindo?
PETER OVERTON: Lapindo, an Indonesian mining company, is public enemy number one. It’s scrawled everywhere you look and it’s written across the furious faces in a nearby shelter for the homeless. Ladies and gentlemen, who do you blame for the situation you are in?
PETER OVERTON: Now this is where the waters really get muddy. Lapindo, the mining company, says ‘We’re not to blame!’ And, wait for this — they say all this destruction was triggered by an earthquake in Yogyakarta, 300km that way, not by the drilling rig, which was only 200 metres away. Did your company cut corners in the drilling process?
IMAM AUGUSTINO: Oh, no. That one is not true.
PETER OVERTON: Despite mounting evidence, Lapindo boss Imam Augustino refuses to budge from the company line that this was a natural disaster. Do you believe it was triggered by the earthquake?
IMAM AUGUSTINO: This triggered by the tectonic activities, not only not only the earthquake, but these tectonic activities.
PETER OVERTON: These tectonic activities — you mean the earthquake Yogyakarta?
IMAM AUGUSTINO: Yeah, yeah.
DR MARK TINGAY: It’s difficult for a geologist, like myself, to believe that an earthquake 200km away and two days prior to the accident would have caused such an event. We would have only had shockwaves to the equivalent of about Richter scale two at the site where the eruption took place. Now, that’s the equivalent of the vibration you get through your feet when you stand next to a road and a truck goes by. So it is a very, very light — not a strong vibration, by any means.
PETER OVERTON: This calamity has cost lives, as well as livelihoods. Late last year, 13 people died when the mud engulfed a gas pipeline, causing a huge explosion. With little doubt that human error caused all this mayhem, East Java police began investigating. They’ve gathered a mountain of evidence so far and they’re still going. Are you one of the 13 suspects being investigated by the police?
IMAM AUGUSTINO: Yes. Yep. It is.
PETER OVERTON: How does it feel living with that over your head?
IMAM AUGUSTINO: Of course, it’s very hard.
PETER OVERTON: You could go to jail.
IMAM AUGUSTINO: Yes, yep.
PETER OVERTON: With tempers at boiling point, the Indonesian Government ordered Lapindo to buy every block of land, every home and every factory as compensation. But, get this — sitting beside President Yudhoyono in Cabinet as Welfare Minister is Aburizal Bakrie, a billionaire businessman whose empire includes Lapindo. Recently, Mr Bakrie has been trying to off-load the company, but those owed money suspect he is trying to offload his liability as well. Let me make sense of why I think you want to sell it to an offshore company. It was so you could have a company with no assets, no responsibility, so you could wash your hands of the problem.
IMAM AUGUSTINO: That is not true.
PETER OVERTON: So, everything I’m saying isn’t true?
IMAM AUGUSTINO: I don’t say it’s not true but it is not 100 percent correct.
PETER OVERTON: Lapindo has begun paying compensation but there is a catch — people must first prove they own their home and land.
IMAM AUGUSTINO: As soon as possible, whenever they can provide the certificate of land, they go to the government agencies, make verification, and we pay them.
PETER OVERTON: You know as well as I do that most of these people cannot supply a certificate of ownership of the land to their home because it was swallowed up by the mud.
IMAM AUGUSTINO: No, that’s just a case.
PETER OVERTON: They had 15 minutes to escape.
IMAM AUGUSTINO: No, they — who said that, 15 minutes?
PETER OVERTON: Spare a thought, too, for the Australian investors who stood to make a killing but, instead, are losing millions on the ill-fated gas well. Santos, the Adelaide-based mining giant, had an 18 percent slice of the action and is now lumped with 18 percent of the losses. Santos corporate vice-president is Martin Eames. How much have you paid out?
MARTIN EAMES: We have paid out $30 million.
PETER OVERTON: And how much do you intend to pay out?
MARTIN EAMES: Well, we’ve made a provision in our accounts for $89 million.
PETER OVERTON: Is Santos paying out for the good of the displaced people or because you want to keep the Indonesian Government onside?
MARTIN EAMES: Well, we’re paying it because we feel it’s the right thing to do, first and foremost, and part of that is because of the impact on the people. You know, a decision on paying the money that we have done is simply because we feel that is the right thing to do.
PETER OVERTON: Since there is no taming the flow of the mud, what on earth to do with it? A new drainage channel to relieve the massive build up is just a trickle compared with what is spewing out of the ground. What is really frightening, though, is the scientists’ prediction that the giant underground chasm left behind could cave-in, sucking everything down with it. You’re saying that the earth could gobble up the whole lot?
DR MARK TINGAY: Now, what we really fear that might happen is that that could collapse very, very quickly. That all the water and all the soil that has been pulled out of the ground could cause the ground above, the surface, to collapse. Tens of metres — 20, 30 metres down — in a few, just a few seconds, and that would be catastrophic.