Mud Volcano Is ‘Natural Disaster’: Minister

JAKARTA ~ A minister claimed on Wednesday that a vast “mud volcano” that has inundated villages in Java was a “natural disaster” unrelated to the drilling activities of a company controlled by his family.

A gas well near Surabaya in East Java operated by Lapindo Brantas Inc. has spewed steaming mud since May last year, submerging villages, industries and fields.

Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare Aburizal Bakrie has said little about the environmental disaster and his explanation at a Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club lunch was questioned by journalists and diplomats.

According to most experts, Lapindo Brantas Inc., owned by the Bakrie Group controlled by the minister’s family, made a serious technical error in its exploratory drilling by not taking measures to prevent the possible escape of liquid or gas under pressure.

By breaking through a layer containing hydrogen sulphide, the drilling allowed hot mud to rise and escape.

But Bakrie claimed nothing could have prevented the disaster, quoting “international and national experts,” and instead blamed it on an earthquake hundreds of kilometers from the site of the mud flow.

“It is not because of the Lapindo drill case but it is because of the quake,” he said, referring to the May 27 quake near the ancient city of Yogyakarta that killed around 6,000 people.

Bakrie also said the mud, which has forced 13,000 people to flee and continues to spread, was not toxic and could be dumped in the sea without concern.

“The mud is the sea mud,” he said, adding it was laid down at a time in geological history when the area was covered by the sea.

“(The mud is) moving back from the (current) place to (the) original place,” Barie said.

“It does not kill the fish,” he said. “It will not endanger the shrimp industry.”

United Nations experts, however, predicted in a report that the sudden influx of mud in the sea would destroy the marine ecosystem.

Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar has said it could take years before the mud stops flowing.

Last month, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered Lapindo to pay Rp3.8 trillion (US$420.7 million) in compensation and costs related to the mud flow.

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