There can’t be many disaster areas that you can drive past and not notice but Sidoarjo in East Java is one such oddity. Back in 2006 a drilling operation caused a natural gas well blowout, creating the world’s biggest mud volcano. All these years later and it is still merrily chugging away, spewing out mud and steam. Although the rate has slowed considerably it has the potential to continue for years. As letting it gradually overwhelm the entirety of this already built up area wasn’t an option, levees have been built to surround the 1200 ha site containing the steaming slop. With mud 12m deep, the massive walls are all you see from the main road. Already the goo is nearly overflowing the existing barrier and a new holding tank will have to be built. It may not be the traditional volcanic cone in shape but the central bulge of the mud mountain is far higher than the surrounding levee.
The initial death toll of five may have been mercifully low but over 40,000 people, from 12 villages have been displaced, with at least a $3 million bill for damages so far. As more mud is forced out, a large area around the flow is subsiding dramatically, leaving abandoned buildings and more people displaced.
A dewatering process is being carried out to make containment more effective and allow the mud to stabilise into something firmer. The water is pumped into the nearby river but this is no benign process, as one look at the arid wasteland of dried mud reveals, not even a single weed has sprouted in eight years, so whatever is in the mud, apart from the heavy metals already detected doesn’t augur well for anyone with locally caught fish or irrigated crops in their diet.
The company responsible for the drilling, PT Lapindo Brantas has been found guilty of several technical failings in their original work which led to the blowout and despite an earthquake a few hundred kilometers away at the time which may have contributed to the issue, the bulk of scientific opinion puts the blame on the company. So, you may wonder why the government declared it a natural disaster, thus absolving PT Lapindo of any liability for compensation. It can hardly be a coincidence that the company is part owned by the Bakrie family and who should be the chairman of the Golkar Party (part of the ruling coalition until this year’s elections) but Aburizal Bakrie. For even such a corruption plagued country as Indonesia this was one audacious move too far and the resultant outcry forced the company to offer compensation to the victims but even this hasn’t yet been paid in full.
With government compensation factored in it still falls short of the true worth of the people’s losses, so enterprising locals have taken to charging an entrance fee to visitors, providing guided tours on motorbikes and selling DVDs about the catastrophic events. I could no doubt have haggled them down on the price of these but their demands were hardly onerous and it’s certainly not an indefinite source of income. Thus, while not a conventional tourist destination it does attract a regular trickle of visitors, providing much-needed income for those who have lost everything. The steaming vent may have lost its spectacular geyser of earlier years but the eerie lunar landscape and sombre storyline are fine fodder for lovers of dark tourism.
Anyone wishing to visit can do so easily on public transport as it is on the main road south from Surabaya. Take any minibus to Sidoarjo and ask for Porong and Lapindo, you may have to change in Sidoarjo.