August 10, 2006

Indonesia says mudflow can pour into sea

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A huge flow of hot mud pouring out of
an exploratory oil well in Indonesia inundating all in its path
will be treated and channeled into the sea, the environment
minister said on Thursday.

Authorities have been struggling for more than two months
to plug the leak near the well just south of Indonesia's second
city of Surabaya. The noxious mud flow has displaced about
8,000 people from their homes.

"To overcome this we will expand the area for the mud,
second we will process the mud to naturalize it and the water
can flow either to the sea or to the river," Environment
Minister Rachmat Witoelar told reporters after a cabinet

"We hope we can handle that process in three months."
Marking the latest trouble from the mud, a watershed protecting
two villages was breached on Thursday, sending dark-gray water
up to chest height gushing into the area.

On Tuesday, a major toll road was also forced to close on
after the hot mud engulfed a large section of the highway.

The road to Surabaya was shut after huge amounts of muddy
water swamped a 500 meter (1,600 ft) stretch.

Hospital officials say noxious fumes from the hot, thick
sludge have left scores gasping for breath or vomiting.

The torrent has inundated swathes of land in four villages
and contaminated many shrimp ponds dotting coastal Sidoarjo
regency, famous in Indonesia for its shrimp crackers.

Authorities have told residents of villages that might
eventually be swamped to leave their homes, but some fear they
would not be properly compensated.

The government has said it will give five million rupiah
($550) to affected families to cover rent for two years.

An oil industry watchdog official has said the mudflow that
began at the end of May could have been triggered by a crack at
about 6,000 feet in the Banjar Panji-1 exploration well,
operated by Indonesia's Lapindo Brantas.

(Additional reporting by Heri Retnowati in SURABAYA)