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Mud eruption ’caused by drilling’

BBC News

By James Morgan 
Science & Environment reporter, BBC News


Lusi has been erupting for two years, leaving 30,000 people homeless

The eruption of the Lusi mud volcano in Indonesia was caused by drilling for oil and gas, a meeting of 74 leading geologists has concluded.

Lusi erupted in May 2006 and continues to spew out boiling mud, displacing around 30,000 people in East Java.

Drilling firm Lapindo Brantas denies a nearby well was the trigger, blaming an earthquake 280km (174 miles) away.

Around 10,000 families who have lost their homes are awaiting compensation, which could run as high as $70m (£43m).


 This is the data we wanted to get out – the data I have never been able to show before. It clearly shows that the well failed. It was the driver for the eruption 
Professor Richard Davies
Durham University

After debating new evidence at a conference in South Africa, most geologists voted drilling as the cause.Correspondents describe the result a significant development in the tug-of-war to establish liability for the disaster.

Mud slinging

The debate on the cause of the eruption took place at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, in Cape Town.

It was the first time the two opposing sides had agreed to debate before an international conference of independent experts.

The contest was chaired by a professional football referee – Professor John Underhill, an Edinburgh University geologist, who is also a match official in the Scottish Premier League.

 We presented clear and indisputable facts that none of the four required factors for the well to have been responsible for triggering the eruption occurred. 
Lapindo Brantas spokesman

The dispute centres on some newly released data – measurements taken from the Banjar-Panji-1 exploration well during the final 24 hours leading up to the eruption.

Professor Richard Davies, of Durham University in the UK, argued that these readings clearly point to a build up of pressure, causing fractures which propagated from the bore hole to the surface 150m away, resulting in the eruption.

However, Rocky Sawolo, senior drilling adviser of Lapindo Brantas, used the same primary data to argue the opposite – the pressure within the well was within acceptable limits.

Satellite photo showing the devastation caused by the Lusi mud volcano

His colleague Dr Adriano Mazzini, of the University of Oslo, testified that the fracture was triggered by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake two days earlier, centred on Yogyakarta, some 280km away.

But these claims were directly contradicted by Dr Mark Tingay from Curtin University, Australia, a geological pressure and rock mechanics expert.

The earthquake “was at least an order of magnitude too small,” he said, stressing that the force felt at the Lusi site would have been “very small” – comparable to the effect of a heavy truck passing overhead.

Judgment call

When the vote was called, 42 out of the 74 scientists in the audience were convinced that the drilling was the trigger of the eruption.

Only three voted for the earthquake.

A further 16 scientists believed the evidence was inconclusive, and the remaining 13 felt that a combination of earthquake and drilling was to blame.


“The geologists voted overwhelmingly that drilling was the most likely cause,” said Prof Underhill.

“The atmosphere was very tense, so all credit to them for not sitting on their hands.

“Hopefully this will be a catalyst for taking things forward. To my mind the result demonstrates that at the very least, the drilling company have a case to answer.”

Prof Davies said: “I remain convinced that drilling was the cause of the mud volcano.

“The opinion of the international scientists adds further weight to my conviction.”



Victims scatter flower petals on their former village, now swamped by mud

For two years, the Lusi crater has been oozing mud – enough to fill 50 Olympic size swimming pools every day.

The eruption began at 0500 on 29 May 2006 in the Porong subdistrict of Sidoarjo, Eastern Java, close to Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya.

All efforts to stem the flow have failed – including a network of dams; channelling into the sea; and an ambitious plan to plug the crater with concrete balls.

Some geologists believe Lusi could continue to erupt for decades.

The mud flow has razed four villages and 25 factories. Thirteen people have died, as a result of a rupture in a natural gas pipeline underneath one of the holding dams.

Victim of Lusi mud volcano

A police investigation is underway to identify the trigger and to determine whether the drillers are liable for compensating 10,000 families, amounting to 700 billion Indonesian Rupias (US$77; £47m).

If the earthquake is judged responsible, as claimed by Lapindo, then the Indonesian government will have the burden of supporting the victims.

There is no dispute that seismic activity can provoke mud volcanoes, and both are common in East Java.

Nevertheless, in June 2008 Prof Davies published a paper in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, in which he concluded with “99% certainty” that Lapindo’s drilling caused the mudflow.

He argues that the 2,500m-deep bore hole ruptured limestone rock, containing pressurised water. As the lower part of the borehole was not protected by casing, this forced water and mud into the rocks surrounding the well.

Homes swamped by mud

The volcano ejects enough mud each day to fill 50 Olympic swimming pools

At the conference, he produced fresh records of the changes in pressure in the 24 hours leading up to Lusi’s eruption.

The pressure plots were introduced by drilling engineer Susila Lusiaga, who works with the Indonesian police investigation team.

“The pressure in the well went way beyond what it could tolerate… and it triggered the mud volcano,” he said.

The new records “provide a compelling tape recording of the well as it started to leak,” said Prof Davies.

“This is the data we wanted to get out – the data I have never been able to show before.

“It clearly shows that the well failed. And this failure was the driver for a the breakdown of the rocks – it was the trigger for the mud volcano.”

John Underhill

Debate Chairman John Underhill is also a professional football referee

The well took a huge influx of fluid the day before the eruption, he said, resulting in intolerable pressures, and fractures which propagated until the surface was breached.

“We see the pressure building, then suddenly we see a massive drop at 9.30pm on May 28th – the night before the eruption began.

“This is evidence that a fracture has opened up. It’s like a tyre bursting – the pressure inside bleeds away.

He added: “This may be evidence that Lusi actually started at 9.30pm the night before – not 5am the next morning.”



Giant levees have been constructed to contain the mud

“Now the data has been released, I would like to get it out to independent drilling experts, who can then go through it,” said Prof Davies, a geologist.

“We are particularly grateful to Lapindo, who were widely applauded at the meeting for their willingness to take part. We are now starting to make some headway.”

Sticking point

However, despite the vote, the drilling firm strenuously denies that its activities were in any way responsible for the disaster.

From the same primary data, they calculate that the pressures under the ground did not go beyond critical levels.

“We presented clear and indisputable facts that none of the four required factors for the well to have been responsible for triggering the eruption occurred,” a spokesman for Lapindo Brantas said.

“Specifically: there was no uncontrolled ‘kick’. The casing shoe was not breached and the well was intact.

“There was no underground blowout. There was no sustained pressure to propagate a fracture.” 



Java villages drown in mud lake

Thursday, 5 October 2006, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK 

By Lucy Williamson 
BBC News, Surabaya


People try to rescue valuable items from the flooded area

The spill has now turned into a lake of mud

In the village of Porong Atas, just outside Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya, people are preparing for a flood. 

Using pickaxes and shovels, labourers dig a narrow canal around the edge of the village, past the grocery store with its boxes of biscuits stacked outside and a newly arrived army tent.

This sleepy place is now on the front-line of a shifting tide, but it is not water that is approaching, but mud.

Peer over the canal wall and just metres away the fields and buildings are covered with the sticky sludge, which has been streaming from a fissure in the earth since early June.

With the rains coming, people know how easily they could lose everything.


Some, like Poiman, already have.




Dried-out mud

The mud first began spurting in June



Poiman fled to Porong Atas with his family a month ago after his old house was submerged by the spreading sludge.

“We’re refugees,” he said. “If it turns out not to be safe here, we’ll just move again, though I don’t know where.”

Poiman’s family shares a simple concrete house in the village with another family – seven people and the possessions they salvaged crammed into two rooms.

“I was frightened in the old house,” says his wife, “but it’s OK here, I feel a bit safer. I’m just worried about money. I hope I can get a job.”


Poiman is making bricks out of the dried-out mud.

It is not much of a living; no-one has bought many of his bricks yet, he says, but the mud is there, it is free and he has got to do something.

Spreading further

The rent on Poiman’s concrete room has been paid for by compensation he received from a local gas company, Lapindo Brantas.




The company has been accused of causing the disaster by drilling an exploratory gas well, close to where the mud spill happened, though the company has suggested the eruption was caused by seismic activity rather than its drilling.

When the mud first began spurting up through a crack in the earth, it was producing around 5,000 cubic metres a day. Now it is more like 130,000 cubic metres a day.

The lake of mud has spread further and further across the area, covering 400 hectares (988 acres), submerging eight villages and forcing more than 10,000 people from their homes.

And there is no sign of it stopping.

River canal

Drive close to the centre of the spill now and it is easy to spot plumes of white steam curling up from the spluttering, spitting heart of the so called “mud volcano”.

Some scientists believe it could in fact be unstoppable.


Sidoarjo (photo: CNES 2005-2006)

The mud flow has continued to spread since it erupted in May


The need for drastic measures is keenly felt by the government, even at the other end of Java.

In his office in the capital, Jakarta, Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar has agreed to a controversial plan, to channel the mud into a nearby river and out to sea.

Several blue plastic pipes already run down to the Porong river, carrying muddy water from the surrounding area.

But the dredgers that the government has promised have not arrived yet and there is a worry that mud and silt in the water could eventually clog up the river and make the problem even harder to solve.

Environmentalists are worried too.

Local environmental group Walhi says the plan will destroy marine life in the area and that it could take 30 years to repair the damage.

They criticise the government for not doing more sooner to limit the problem.

But squeezed between the river and the encroaching mud are signs of support for the government’s emergency strategy – banners hung from trees tell officials to save the people, not the fish.

Local people, it seems, are prepared to back anything that puts an end to this crisis. 


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