email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Unstoppable Mud
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The politics surrounding the disaster are as muddy as the landscape. PT Lapindo Brantas, the company that operated the ill-fated well, is partly owned by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, Indonesia's chief welfare minister. Bakrie, a billionaire, says the well had nothing to do with the catastrophe; he blames it on a powerful earthquake that struck Yogyakarta, 170 miles (270 kilometers) away, two days before the mud flood. He has yet to visit Lusi's victims. Just as well. Anger pervades a market where thousands of displaced villagers encamp. "If Bakrie comes here," one man says, slowly drawing his finger across his throat. Still, Bakrie enjoys the backing of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who may run again in 2009 and apparently opts not to alienate a fat-cat cabinet member by demanding his resignation.

The Indonesian government ordered Lapindo to pay more than 400 million dollars in compensation. But the money has been slow in coming; Sumitro, chief negotiator for 800 families, believes the company is stalling.

Not so, says a spokesperson for Lapindo. She explains compensation is delayed because claimants cannot provide adequate proof of home or land ownership, and maintains the company has already spent millions to house and feed victims. Claims will be fully paid within two years, she promises, adding that Lapindo has no legal obligation because the disaster's cause remains unproven. "We don't know yet whether this is our fault," she says.

One study by an international team that included a Lapindo employee supported Bakrie's claim that the earthquake caused the mess. But Richard Davies of Durham University in England is dismissive. "One, the earthquake wasn't big enough and was too far away," he says. "Two, we have pretty good evidence for how drilling would have caused this incident."

Davies' own studies concluded the eruption was triggered by the drilling and the attempt to control a huge influx of water and gas that fractured sections of the borehole.

An attempt to plug the hole with thousands of concrete balls failed last year. Now Soenarso, chief of the Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency, is out of ideas for halting the flow. "I can only say it is in the hands of God Almighty," he told the Jakarta Post.

But Lusi isn't finished. Torrential rains could erode dikes, releasing more mud, displacing more people. Whatever happens, one fact remains: for Lusi's victims, Lapindo's name is mud.
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