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Go to start of metadata Simon Montlake| Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitorfrom the November 28, 2007 edition

PORONG, INDONESIA - On one side of the levee, a line of trucks waits on a clogged, two-lane road under a broiling sun. On the other, a vast lake of mud stretches to the horizon. Neither appears to be moving.

In the distance, a trail of white smoke rises from a hole in the ground where the mud flow began 18 months ago. Despite attempts to stanch the sludge, such as by dropping giant concrete balls from helicopters into the fissure, the mud continues to gush, swallowing everything in its path.

Prone to earthquakes and volcanoes, Indonesia is no stranger to natural disasters. But what befell this densely populated slice of Java Island was, by most accounts, a man-made calamity.

Last May, an Indonesian energy company drilling for natural gas accidentally opened a fissure in the ground from where hot, viscous mud began erupting. The unstoppable stinking ooze has since swallowed up 11 towns, destroying homes, factories, schools, and farms, and forcing some 16,000 people to uproot.

But its calm oily surface is deceptive. The mud, which contains heavy metals and chemicals such as benzene and sulfurdioxide, has also contaminated rivers and wells in a city-sized area that was semi-industrial farmland and a shrimp production zone. Indonesia's national planning agency has put the economic damages at $334 million a month and says the final bill could be as high as $8.6 billion.

A network of dams now holds back the mud, and engineers are trying to pump some of the sludge out to sea. Already, an estimated 1 billion cubic feet of mud has inundated an area of 2.5 square miles.


The disaster has become a political liability for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose hesitant response was complicated by his ties to Minister of Public Welfare Aburizal Bakrie, a prominent businessman whose family-run conglomerate owns Lapindo. Political opponents say that Mr. Bakrie, formerly chief economics minister, only kept his cabinet post in an April reshuffle because he is a financial backer of President Yudhoyono, who faces reelection in 2009.

Whatever the political calculations in Jakarta, disgruntled residents here blame both parties for their plight. A painted banner across an abandoned stretch of toll road in the disaster zone reads "Lapindo + Government = Madness."