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Lapindo Blamed for Mudflow in East Java

A two-year-old mud volcano in East Java that has submerged six villages, displaced 12,000 families and inundated hundreds of hectares of land, was caused by drilling negligence rather than natural causes, according to new research by British and US academics.

The research, seen by the Financial Times, provide the most conclusive findings to date that Lapindo Brantas, the oil and gas company drilling an exploratory well 150m from the eruption site, triggered the mudflow on May 29 2006. The mud is still flowing at more than 100,000 cubic metres a day – enough to fill 53 Olympic swimming pools.

Lapindo, which has seen the report, acknowledges it made significant mistakes less than a day before the eruption, but says these had no bearing on the subsequent mudflow. It says the incident was a natural disaster caused by tectonic activity unsealing a geological fault close to the drill site.

The political fallout for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at legislative and presidential elections could be significant if prosecutors proceed to court and Lapindo is found liable.

The government agreed to share the multi-billion dollar clean-up costs with Lapindo, which is owned by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, the chief welfare minister.

Geologists Richard Davies of Britain’s Durham University and Michael Manga of the University of California at Berkeley in the US said they were “98 percent certain” that Lapindo was responsible. “In geology you can rarely be 100 per cent certain about anything,” Dr Davies said. “There are so many unlikely coincidences – Lapindo was either the unluckiest drilling company anywhere in the world ever, or they caused the disaster.”

The academics concluded that the disaster began with the drilling crew’s failure to detect for 90 minutes a “massive” influx of water and gas, known as a kick, into the 2,834m-deep drilling hole the day before the eruption. They say that by the time the hole had been closed to contain the kick, the pressure in the hole had risen so much that it exceeded the maximum allowable pressure and the sides fractured.

Lapindo acknowledges that its personnel failed to detect the kick promptly, but says that the pressure in the bore never exceeded the maximum allowable.

The company points to a 5.9-magnitude earthquake 250km to the south-west on May 27 as evidence of tectonic activity occurring at the time, suggesting that it opened the Watukosek fault, on which the drill site was located.

“We’re trying to look for answers for what happened,” said Bambang Istadi, Lapindo’s former exploration manager and now the Bakrie Group’s senior vice-president for technical services.

Dr Manga said there was no evidence of an escalation of tectonic activity over the previous year, that bigger earthquakes nearer the eruption site had not caused mud eruptions and that the fault would have been more likely to close than open, based on the way the Earth’s plates moved to cause the Yogyakarta earthquake.

Separately, an unpublished analysis carried out for the Indonesian police and seen by the FT points to potentially crucial errors in Lapindo’s pressure calculations.

Harry Eddyarso, who has 25 years of worldwide drilling experience, was commissioned by the Indonesian police to analyse the data submitted by the companies involved in the drilling.

“I’m 100 per cent certain Lapindo is to blame,” he said. “They made one mistake after another.” The police have publicly accused Lapindo of responsibility for the mud slide but prosecutors have declined to proceed to court, citing reports from scientists who have attributed the mud flow to natural causes.

Last year the Bakrie Group bought the 32 percent stake in Lapindo owned by Medco Energi, Indonesia’s largest private energy company, in exchange for Medco withdrawing arbitration proceedings against Lapindo.

The government said last week it was focusing on cleaning up the mess and helping the victims.

John Anglionby 

© Financial Times

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