August 30, 2006

Mud from Indonesian Oil Well Engulfs Key Road Again

By Heri Retnowati

SURABAYA, Indonesia -- Foul-smelling mud oozing from an exploratory oil well in Indonesia has forced the partial closure of key toll road for the fifth time this month, officials said on Wednesday.

The mudflow is part of an unfolding environmental disaster in East Java province and there appears few signs of a resolution soon.

Authorities and well operator PT Lapindo Brantas have been struggling since late May to plug the mud that has displaced more than 10,000 people from their homes.

A 5 km (3 mile) section of the toll road that connects Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya, to its southern industrial suburbs had to be shut, said Joko Suprapto, an assistant operator at the East Java branch of PT Jasa Marga, the state firm administering toll roads in Indonesia.

"We closed it last night from kilometer 37 to 42. The muddy water streamed over the dykes that barricade the tollroad," he told Reuters.

East Java police said only 300 meters (980 ft) of the 43-km long Surabaya-Gempol tollroad were fully inundated but there were pools of mud of varying depths dotting the closed section.

Bachriansyah, the head operator of the tollroad, said the pools could endanger motorists.

"It was first closed on the 4th, then 8th, 10th, 16th and the fifth closure this month began on August 29," he said, adding the highway would only be open when the mud subsided.

"It's like eating the forbidden fruit. If you close it, it will disrupt business. If you open it, safety is at stake."

The highway is the main transport artery for goods from industrial areas south of East Java's provincial capital.

The noxious mud gives off fumes that have made people ill and caused respiratory problems.

The economic cost has also been mounting with swathes of land in four villages and many shrimp ponds engulfed dotting coastal Sidoarjo regency, famous in Indonesia for its shrimp crackers.

An oil industry watchdog official has said the mudflow 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.

Lapindo is a unit of PT Energi Mega Persada, partly owned by the Bakrie Group, which is controlled by the family of Indonesia's chief social welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie.

Australia's Santos Ltd., which has said it is insured against the problem, has an 18 percent interest, while Indonesia's largest listed energy firm, PT Medco Energi International Tbk, holds the remaining 32 percent.

(Additional reporting by Diyan Jari in JAKARTA)