Report on mud volcano based on flawed data

Peter Alford
From: The Australian
October 11, 2010 12:00AM

THE Humanitus Foundation focuses on Indonesian and Cambodian education projects.

But a documentary on the Sidoarjo mud volcano suggested a new mission to the Australian charity’s executive director Jeffrey Richards.

Humanitus Sidoarjo Fund was established in March to raise international awareness and funds for scientific research into the disaster, which in four years has made more than 40,000 people homeless, engulfed five East Java villages and now threatens six others.

But the first product of the HSF program, a Russian study conducted in odd circumstances, has stirred the unresolved controversy that always discouraged foreign aid from Sidoarjo: what triggered the eruption of boiling mud and methane in May 2006?

Normally, a natural catastrophe on the scale of “Lusi” (for Lumpur Sidoarjo, or Sidoarjo mud) attracts a flurry of foreign aid; but not this one, Mr Richards saw from the documentary.

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“One of the saddest things was that with all the hoo-ha, no one in the international organisations was putting their hands up to help. The Indonesians were left on their own.”

Most expert international opinion holds that Lusi was triggered by a drilling accident by Lapindo Brantas, a petroleum company controlled by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, Indonesia’s most powerful tycoon. This led foreign agencies to conclude that Bakrie Group – and Mr Bakrie, then Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s welfare minister – were responsible for compensating victims and mitigating damage.

Mr Yudhoyono in 2008 ordered Bakrie Group to pay 3.8 trillion rupiah ($432 million) in compensation and work to halt the mudflows. In December of that year, South Australian oil and gas producer Santos paid $US22.5m ($22.85) in a deal to release it from claims by joint-venture partners in the gas project. But last year the Supreme Court exonerated Lapindo, police dropped charges against its executives and a parliamentary investigation also backed the company.

While Mr Bakrie prepares to run for president in 2014, Lapindo reportedly has told government officials it can’t afford to fund Sidoarjo compensation any longer.

According to the government agency overseeing Lusi, BPLS, Lapindo had paid R2.55 trillion by August, when local NGOs said compensation payments had already dried up.

Lapindo’s insistence Lusi was triggered by the magnitude-6.3 Jogjakarta earthquake two days beforehand has now been supported by the Russian study, led by Sergey V. Kadurin.

An obscure Russian petroleum company, RINeftGaz, provided the study’s $US1m technical support.

RINeftGaz seems to have formed in 2007, about the time Vladimir Putin visited, promising Mr Yudhoyono help with Lusi and promoting co-operative Russian-Indonesian petroleum developments.

Experts such as Mark Tingay, from the University of Adelaide’s Australian School of Petroleum, say the study fails to demonstrate how the mudflow was triggered by an earthquake they say was “either 10 times too small or 150km too far away”.

“The report doesn’t have any real data and what little data they do provide is flawed,” said Dr Tingay, who has co-authored major scientific studies of the Lusi phenomenon. “It’s my opinion, from the scientific studies I’ve done, that earthquakes could not have triggered Lusi and we’re 90 per cent sure – many colleagues would say 99 per cent sure – this was related to a drilling accident.”

When HSF agreed with BPLS to work on Sidoarjo, Mr Richards said, the Indonesian side promoted the Russian study as their first project. “We were informed the study wasn’t actually to be used to determine the cause of the mud volcano.

“It was to determine what was lying under the sub-surface; what the future holds for the region.”

Mr Richards said it was not Humanitus’s role to be involved in controversy about what triggered Lusi. “Our main goal was to help the people of Indonesia and help those affected by this disaster.”


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