The Lusi Mud Volcano - the Oil and Gas Industry's Worst Disaster

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On May 29 2006, Porong Village in the Sidoarjo Regency of the East Java Province of Indonesia, 35 km from the Indonesian city of Surabaya, witnessed the beginning of a disaster. This was the beginning of “Lumpur Sidoarjo” or Lusi, a mud volcano. Lumpur means mud in the Indonesian language.

See Google Earth at E 112°42’40”, S 7°32’3” for the location.

What triggered the event?

Was it a faulty drilling procedure? Was it an earthquake with an epicentre 300 km away few days before? Was it Nature’s time bomb waiting for a trigger? Or was it a “Well Kick” gone out of control ?

Three years gone, the question remains unanswered. Studies, talks, debates, and blame - the “mudslinging” goes on. Meanwhile the mud flow inundates more and more area, ever increasing the human side of the disaster.

The island of Java, which is part of the 17,000-plus islands of the Indonesian archipelago, is one of the most densely populated human habitats on Earth. Indonesia has more than 129 active volcanoes, and lies on the “ring of fire.” The archipelago has recorded most of the greatest volcanic eruptions of historic times. Frequent earthquakes also rattle the archipelago.

Lapindo Brantas, an oil exploration company, was drilling a natural gas well when hot mud started flowing out of one of the wells. Efforts to plug the well only resulted in more and more surface connections leading to more and more mud flow. From the strata below the earth, hot mud and water at 60 °C, high in Hydrogen Sulphide and at great pressures, started spewing out. This flow of hot mud continues even after three years and now not from a few points, but from more than ninety points. How long will this continue? A few more years or for the next twenty years, nobody knows.

The mud flows, hot and sulphurous, 50,000 to 100,000 cubic meters every day and now covers an area greater than 1000 hectares. It has inundated villages, highways, and a railroad. It has destroyed more than a thousand homes, schools, and industries. Apart from the fatalities, it has displaced around 50,000 people and stripped them of their livelihood.

Embankments controlled the mud flow by diverting it to the nearby river and eventually to the sea. However, now the embankments are collapsing , making control impossible.

Further damage to the environment and humans could be in the form of the destruction of estuarine and marine life, the effects of toxic heavy metals like mercury discharged with the mud, and health effects due to Hydrogen Sulphide.

While the people of Sidoarjo try to put together the jigsaw pieces of their shattered life, academicians, bureaucrats, politicians, and business corporations still debate whether the cause of the disaster is a misuse of technology, human error, or just one of nature’s many pranks.