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Coping with an Undersea Mud Volcano in Java

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Muddy Justice

Undersea volcanic eruptions can be spectacular. When water, steam and gas heated to 100 degrees break surface great clouds soar upwards. Prolonged eruptions over a wide area can produce new land mass such as Iceland. After the inhabitants managed to harness the geothermal energy resource under their feet, they could heat their homes and warm public mineral baths without harmful emissions. The geothermal activity raised steam to drive electric turbines.

Less fortunate was the village of Sidoarjo in East Java. In May, 2006, the volcano they call LUSI erupted to spew about 50,000 cubic meters of toxic mud every day much of it deposited as mud flows over the landscape. These flows now have spread over 7 square kilometers displacing 30,000 local people. So far, the estimated damages total $3.5 billions.

The origin of LUSI is the subject of controversy. Some experts claim it was a natural disaster. LUSI lies on a fault line subject to various upheavals. Fault lines follow the coincidence of tectonic plates far beneath the earth's surface. Each plate moves very slowly, but it can be the size of a continent. The fantastic weight can build tremendous pressure at the plate junctures. A slight movement can release mountains of molten lava from below the plates. LUSI's eruption threw sea mud into the air.

Others say that an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 relates to LUSI. It hit the south coast of Java just two days before the LUSI eruption began. It killed more people than the eruption over 6200 and displaced 1.5 million. The earthquake could have been a trigger for the mud volcano's eruption.

Other experts maintain it was a man made disaster. There was a hydrocarbon exploration drilling rig only 150 meters from LUSI's first eruption. The Limporo company had drilled to a depth of 8,500 feet, which required a thick concrete casing to resist the pressures at that depth. At the time of the eruption, the drill bit was boring through porous limestone. If the crew had been logging or perforating the casing [shooting holes to hasten the samples rising to the surface] they could have weakened the well apparatus. Thus released the steam and gasses will find the path of least resistance to the surface.

The legal matters are complex and somewhat unusual. Although the drilling outfit's parent company has no judgments against it, they have paid $560 millions to resettle displaced victims. The firm's net worth is $5 billions. If the courts rule in favor of the victims, it could wipe out the company.

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AQl Jazeera has made a balanced presentation of the issues.

This is the fifth and final documentary on the subject power and people. From the cursory view, the outside observer will judge the issue in terms of his political predilections.

Drilling on a fault line is risky business. Our skills at predicting earthquakes are primitive at best. My dogs and cats are my early warning system. Whenever they bolt from my garden making as much noise as they can, I know to brace myself for the shock.

I came away from the documentary with good feelings about the people of Indonesia. They are humble. They don't want to grab $millions from this event. They simply require replacement homes.

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Born a month before Pearl Harbor, I attended world events from an early age. My first words included Mussolini, Patton, Sahara and Patton. At age three I was a regular listener to Lowell Thomas. My mom was an industrial nurse a member of the (more...)

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